March 25, 2019

The Right Whale to Save

Posted by: Nate Ramey

The Right Whale to Save

In the winter just offshore of Little Saint Simons Island, unbeknownst to many who live in the area, there are real life leviathans. Some of these giants have been known to grow to 60’ long and weigh over 100T. These behemoths are here to give birth to their equally giant offspring, 15’ long and weighing a ton and a half. Hard to believe a creature of these proportions could slip under the radar of so many. The colossal creature I speak of is the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and, knowing a little more about the animal’s history, you can unfortunately see why that status is so.

Deemed the “Right” whale by whalers, this moniker was given to the species due to the whale's propensity to float when killed, mainly because its weight can be 40% blubber. Highly prized for whale oil, the species numbers were quickly decimated, and by the early 1900’s sightings were rare. Total population size was thought to be around 100 individuals. Luckily, whaling of the species was banned, and the population started to slowly crawl its way back from extinction.

For many years not much was known about the biology of this great whale, as sightings were few and far between. Flash forward to the 1980s; it was found that the north Atlantic right whale came in the winter to give birth to their calves in the relatively warm and shallow waters of the southeast Atlantic coast. This was supported by a surprising find on Little Saint Simons Island beach in 1981. A stillborn whale calf was found by the lodge naturalists, proving that the calf had been born in Georgia waters. With this finding came more protection and monitoring for the species, and the population saw a slow but gradual growth to a highpoint of just over 500 animals in 2013.

*^Photo by John Crawford. Newborn North Atlantic Right Whale stranding on Little St. Simons Island in 1981. Discovered by Cathy Sakas. Cathy and John were the first two naturalists on Little St. Simons Island.

However, this was not to last as the right whale now faces the threat of extinction all over again. Adult mortality rates have increased, and calving rates have decreased in recent years. It is now thought that there are only around 400 North Atlantic Right Whales left. Of those it is likely that there are less than 100 breeding age females in the population. Combined with the fact that there were no new recorded births in the ’17-’18 winter, this paints a dire picture for the North Atlantic right whale. The main culprit is human related fatalities, which can be summed up in two ways: ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. These 2 factors alone have led to most of the recorded fatality events in recent years. In 2017 and 2018 alone 20 adult whales were confirmed to have died from these causes. A full 5% of the population gone in just 2 years.

While ship strikes have decreased in recent years due to changes in shipping lanes and ship speed regulations, the amount of fishing gear entanglements has risen. In fact, over 80% of adult whales show scars from entanglement at some point, and over 50% have been entangled more than once. Most entanglements are due to snow crab and lobster pots set in the waters off the US and Canadian borders, where the right whales spend their summers feeding on plankton swarms. With advances in technology, floating lines used on the pots are becoming stronger, allowing for sets in deeper waters, bringing the gear in closer proximity to the whales causing more entanglements. Sadly, this is causing a decrease in calving rates as well, and in 2018 for the first time since monitoring began no newborn whale calves were found in southeast Atlantic waters.

 So, you might ask, what can I do about this? Fortunately, there are a few things you can do. As of 3/6/19 bill H.R.1568 has been introduced in the House of Representatives, which will provide support and funding to Right Whale conservation programs in order to protect and conserve the species. Stay informed of the bill’s progress and contact your representative if applicable and let them hear your voice on this matter.

Another way you can make a difference is to be informed of where your seafood is coming from, and whether its sustainably harvested. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has put together a wonderful website and  phone app called Seafood Watch which can easily give you the best options for choosing seafood, and point out what to avoid. This can help you avoid supporting irresponsible fisherman and their methods that put other sea life at risk.

Lastly, tell a friend. Spread the word about the dire situation of this great whale. The more awareness we have as a society about these current issues facing endangered species like the North Atlantic Right Whale, the easier it will be for us to make better informed choices in our daily lives. The Right Whale has fought its way out of extinction once and it can do it again with our help.


Header photo:credit: Florida FWC, taken under NOAA permit #15488. FWC_7589_13DEC2014_2145

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