Doing the right thing by right whales
“Mariners are urged to maintain a sharp lookout and use caution around right whales.”
All you weather geeks out there will recognize that warning from the “voice” (OK, usually computer-generated) of the National Weather Service updating the latest right whale sightings (available via special weather radios and here).
Getting mariners to slow down is one key to saving this critically endangered species. Under new federal regulations, vessels must travel at 10 knots or less within 20 nautical miles of East Coast ports during the right whale migration season, which begins in January in New England.
The restrictions are in place in Cape Cod Bay from January 1 to May 15; off Race Point, Provincetown from March 1 to April 30 and in the Great South Channel (300 miles south of Chatham) from April 1 to July 31.
Researchers at the New England Aquarium discovered that right whale mortality drops to about 20 percent when large ships (over 65 feet) travel cut their speeds. When ships travel at speeds greater than 15 knots, the mortality rate is more than 80 percent.
Right whales are so-called because in ye olde whaling times they were considered the “right” whale to hunt (that is, a slow moving animal that swims near the ocean’s surface and floats when dead). And hunted they were, nearly to extinction. Between 300 and 400 remain today. Half of the 52 recorded right whale deaths between 1970 and 2001 were caused by collisions with ships.
“It’s counterintuitive, but whales face more threats now than they did during the heyday of Yankee whaling,” Patrick Ramage told me. He’s the Global Whale Program Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, headquartered in Yarmouth Port.
Threats like entanglement in fishing gear, ocean noise pollution, disruption of migratory patterns due to climate change, and hunting in the waters off Japan, Iceland, and Norway make low-tech 19th century whaling look benign.
The fishing industry has also faced restrictions. In our Winter 2008 issue, CommonWealth Washington correspondent Shawn Zeller described how Massachusetts lobstermen worked with state officials to deploy whale-safe lobster gear, to the dismay of their Maine counterparts
“Even the Bush administration saw that this was the right thing to do for the right whale," said Ramage.That’s the good news. The bad news is the regulation sunsets in 2013. Will scientists be able to determine by then if right whale populations have recovered?
Ramage still has doubts about that. "That’s a decent slice of time to evaluate, but from the outset, to build in a provision that says ‘this regulation goes away after five years’ seems arbitrary and perhaps cynical."