On December 30, aerial observers discovered a dead two-year old male Right Whale off the coast of Brunswick, floating in the water, bloody gashes strewn across his body -- the telltale signs of a propeller hit.
Just last week, another Right Whale became caught in fishing lines off Georgia’s Cumberland Island. Rescue efforts were ongoing as of this writing.
Right Whales are the rarest of all large whale species and among the rarest of all marine mammals. There are only about 300 North Atlantic Right Whales in existence, so each premature death further damns their species.
The Georgia coast plays an integral part in the survival of the species, because pregnant females migrate to our warm waters every winter to calve and nurse their babies.
Last year, researchers knew of six North Atlantic Right Whale deaths, five of which were due to ship strikes or fishing nets. Right whales have a very low reproductive rate, giving birth only about every five years, which cannot sustain this human-induced mortality rate.
If this rate of death continues, the Right Whale will die out, warns Cathy Sakas, education coordinator/co-manager of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, a federally-protected undersea nature reserve 17 miles off Sapelo Island.
Q&A: Cathy Sakas
Cathy Sakas: Right Whales spend 90 percent of their time at or near the surface. They’re extremely slow moving -- 3-5 knots -- for great whales.
When they sleep, in a process dubbed “logging,” part of their brain shuts down and the other half is sluggish… which may cause them to react slowly, if at all, to outside stimuli.
Unlike many other whales, when researchers broadcast ship sounds at Right Whales, they don’t appear to react. Researchers aren’t sure why Right Whales commonly don’t seem to react to ship sounds.
Right Whales move in a north/south migratory path and ships move east/west in and out of ports— it’s like a convergence… typically whales are broad sided.
Why do Right Whales come to the Georgia coast to calve and nurse their young?
Cathy Sakas: Right Whales are born without blubber, so every winter, pregnant females travel down from their feeding grounds in Nova Scotia and Cape Cod with a posse of young whales (who often stay with their mother even after weaning) and deliver their babies in the warm waters of the Georgia and North Florida coast. They remain until the calves gain enough blubber to handle the frigid waters in Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. Additionally, our coastal waters are relatively shallow, which gives the whales protection against sharks.
Why are there so few Right Whales?
Cathy Sakas: In the 1800s, whalers zeroed in on them as the “right” whale to kill for oil and bones, because Right Whales swim close to the surface, and float when they are dead. Before whaling, researchers estimate that there were 50,000 whales swimming up and down the North Atlantic coast. By the 1930s, there were only about 100 North Atlantic Right Whales in existence. The Right Whale became the first whale species to be given international protection.
Speed limits for big ships?
Existing conservation efforts rely on voluntary action by the shipping and fishing industry. Unfortunately, action (or inaction) by these industries is helping to kill off the Right Whale.
In March 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), proposed a speed limit of 10 knots (about 12 miles per hour) for big ships along the east coast. It isn’t a universal speed limit for big ships, just a speed limit in the known feeding or calving grounds of Right Whales, when the whales are likely to be there. Slower speeds give whales (who move 3-5 knots per hour) more time to react, and if there is a ship strike, less chance of mortal injury.
The regulations are currently under review, a process that moves about as fast as a Right Whale. During the past year, there have been scheduled times for public comment, and the shipping and fishing industry has been given a chance to represent their opinions. Now, a series of different government agencies must review the proposed regulations.
This means meetings, committees to be formed, political pressure from different people… and there is no clear timeline to the process.
The lack of urgency is unacceptable to Amy Knowlton, senior Right Whale researcher at the New England Aquarium.
“The process has been impeded because of internal conflict between federal agencies about whether and how to implement such rules, and strong opposition from affected industries who are resisting the need to change business as usual to protect this beleaguered species,” she says.
Canada has already enacted regulations similar to the regulations under review in the U.S., and have rerouted shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy, the principal late summer feeding ground for the Right Whale.
Public comments, posted on the NOAA website, give a taste of industry concerns regarding the proposed regulations.
John Atchison, president of the St. John’s Bar Pilot Association, which handles all of the large ship traffic into and out of the Port of Jacksonville, explained that in inclement weather pilots have to maintain a certain speed. The proposed speed limits, he says, would all but ground incoming traffic during periods of bad weather.
“Should these rules pass our ability to provide all-weather, 24-hour service will be severely diminished and commerce in Jacksonville will be drastically affected whenever adverse weather occurs,” Atchison says.
Mike Gretchell, representing Crowley liner services, was concerned that the research stating that whales were dying from ship strikes was biased, and said, “The economic impact of such seems inappropriate for a species that sadly might see extinction due to causes other than ship strikes.”
At the end of the day, the regulations may be tabled. Teri Frady of NOAA says, “We don’t know what regulations, if any, we will implement.”
Whale expert Hal Caswell, a population biologist at Woods Hole, says “Saving just two Right Whales per year could turn the population around.”
What can you do to help?
The time period for public comment has passed, and there were never public hearings in our community. But if you are concerned about this issue, you can find your senators’ and representatives’ contact information at votesmart.org/.
By sponsoring a Right Whale through the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Project at www.neaq.org/scilearn/research/rtwhale.html you will support the field researchers who are out on the water tracking the animals, in the planes doing aerial surveys, in the office making sense of the information gathered in the field, organizing slides to develop an updated catalog, and generally working to understand more about these endangered whales and how to help them.
Gray’s Reef Right Whale Education Program
“From Whaling to Watching,” is a free educational Right Whale DVD and teacher manual created for teachers.
Their website is graysreef.noaa.gov/
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