What role does climate change play?
Warming oceans can affect whales’ food sources, which are moving as climate change alters seawater temperature, winds and ocean currents. The shift in food availability is impacting reproductive rates and changing where and when NARWs frequent feeding grounds. This makes it more difficult to accurately predict where NARW’s will be at certain times of the year, and it has resulted in right whales occurring in places where no protections from fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes exist.
What does recent research tell us about the future of right whales
Recent research co-authored by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution‘s senior scientist Michael Moore, shows that North Atlantic right whales are growing to a smaller adult size. The stunted growth of the whales coincides with an increasing rate of life-threatening entanglements, with less energy to devote toward growth. The scientists suggest that the ongoing stress of serious entanglements may reduce the reproductive rate of females, and possibly affect the survival of both calves and adults.
Most North Atlantic right whales that are severely injured in fishing gear entanglements die within three years, a study finds. Severely injured whales were up to eight times more likely to die than those with minor injuries, and only 44% of males and 33% of females with severe injuries survived longer than 36 months. Females that did survive had low birth rates and longer intervals between calving.
Additional research shows that smaller females produce fewer calves, and the declining body size of North Atlantic right whales may have critical consequences for the future of the species. Their smaller size means they may take longer to recover from the energetic cost of giving birth, especially in light of other stresses on the population. Decades of research on the species offer details about the stressors right whales face and, with this study, have gained further insights into how these stressors are affecting their reproduction.
Other hard-to-observe factors also influence reproduction and fecundity in North Atlantic right whales beyond female body length, including:
- Prey availability
- Climate impacts on the main feeding grounds
- Maternal health
- Sublethal stressors such as acoustic, vessel, and entanglement trauma, drain energy acquired by feeding, diverting it from calf productivity.
Can the species be saved?
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species; the latest population estimate indicates that there are fewer than 340 remaining. The species is quickly approaching extinction. Educating the public and those that rely on the oceans, and advancing solution-based technologies, is critical to our efforts to save North Atlantic right whales.
In addition to the science and technology expertise that WHOI brings to the challenge, WHOI scientists are members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC),
which uses open source research to formulate science-based conservation measures to protect the NARW. Michael Moore and Mark Baumgartner, both former chairs of the NARWC, are co-founders of the Ropeless Consortium,
which promotes the sensible development, use, and education of On-Demand fishing gear, which offers a possible solution that could be both safe for the North Atlantic right whale and viable for the Atlantic fishing industry. Several prototypes are currently under development and some fishers are partnering with scientists to test different On-Demand fishing traps. WHOI engineers have developed an On-Demand technology that uses an acoustic signal to release a line from a trap, and Mark Baumgartner and WHOI engineer Jim Partan developed a gear location marking system specifically for On-Demand fishing. In collaboration with federal, non-governmental, and fishing industry consultants, WHOI researchers continue to work on improving gear. With support from the SeaWorld Conservation Fund, and other collaborators, they are helping to test offshore On-Demand systems.
Why was American lobster red-listed?
According to Seafood Watch standards, when fisheries pose a high risk of harm to marine life or the environment and appropriate management measures are not in place, they are assigned a red rating. Recently, fisheries using gear that pose significant risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, including the American Lobster fishery, were red listed. Businesses and consumers use Seafood Watch ratings to inform their purchasing decisions. Some businesses may choose not to source from fisheries with a red rating due to the associated environmental risk.
More information on the listing can be found here.
What is WHOI’s position on North Atlantic right whale conservation measures?
Scientists have warned for years that additional measures are needed to reduce entanglements. WHOI believes that it is possible to protect both critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whales and the economic interests of lobster fishers, shipping companies, and others who work in the ocean. Our focus is on developing tools and technologies needed to achieve both important goals and provide the science needed to inform fair and effective public policies.
We must focus on helping develop and advance solutions, which do exist. On-Demand fishing is one way for both right whales and trap and fixed-net fishing industries to survive.
There is a clear need for governments and industry to implement measures that will help bring the North Atlantic right whale back from the brink of extinction. The challenge of doing so while minimizing economic impacts are significant and WHOI remains committed to working with states, industry, NOAA and other policy and regulatory entities to ensure NARW conservation measures are effective and successful.
What about WHOI’s work with aquaculture?
The work we are doing at WHOI and in the field is helping to advance kelp farming, which has significant economic and climate related potential. Kelp can be a sustainable solution to some of our toughest global issues, include food insecurity, and the production of carbon-neutral animal feeds and fuels. There are restorative properties associated with seaweed farms including absorbing excess carbon and nitrogen, buffering coastal pH, providing habitat, and sheltering coastlines.
Does aquaculture/kelp farming impact marine animals?
The need for right whale conservation efforts is clear given the status of the population. Our collective goal is to advance the scientific conversation and create the conditions for balanced solutions that account for both perspectives. WHOI is actively working to encourage dialogue between researchers conducting experiments with kelp farming and those who are working to support right whale conservation, and we believe it is possible to advance both aims in a mutually satisfactory manner.
R&D runs across a broad spectrum of disciplines, some of which can generate scientific and policy debate. There are community-wide efforts to develop strategies to avoid and minimize impacts to all marine protected species. Solutions can include testing varying equipment and different locations to mitigate potential entanglement. Regulatory agencies will decide how these initiatives will co-exist.
How do you reconcile partnerships with industry with WHOI’s mission?
Working with industry is an opportunity for WHOI to leverage our influence to enable positive change in areas that include endangered species protection and climate mitigation. Some of the projects are helping to generate new, publicly available data and information about the ocean. Science can provide a path forward by helping to open new avenues and motivation to make substantial advancements toward a future with reduced reliance on fossil fuels.
WHOI doesn’t enter these relationships lightly and we do so while adhering to a strict code of scientific independence and integrity. It is our hope that these projects can lead to better ocean stewardship.
It is imperative that science and industry work together and collaborate across sectors to find solutions that meet human needs and keep the ocean healthy. New partnerships are key to transforming our relationship with the ocean.
Where can the public learn more?
- Learn more about WHOI’s work with right whales at edu.
- WHOI also produced a special report: Saving the North Atlantic Right Whale. Download it here
- A new book by Michael Moore, veterinarian, and marine scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution examines the plight and future of the North Atlantic right whale that draws on Moore’s 40 years of fieldwork to offer possible solutions. We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and our Responsibility is a reminder that we can all share in the salvation of these imperiled animals. The image most people have of whalers includes harpoons and intentional trauma yet eating commercially caught seafood enables whales’ entanglement and slow death in rope and nets, while the global shipping routes that bring us readily available goods often leads to vessels fatally colliding with whales. All of us are whalers, Moore contends, but we do not have to be.