Nfld. & Labrador

Right whales have experts on high alert. Here's why

An author and DFO scientist weigh in on what's causing the death of the right whale - and what you can do to help.

'If people saw a dog or a cat in a similar sort of situation, they'd be outraged'

A North Atlantic Right Whale emerging from the ocean. (worldwildlife.org)

The North Atlantic right whale is in so much trouble that the scientists who are deeply worried about whether the species can survive can count them individually. 

Those numbers are tumbling — now down to just over 400 — and are in such perilous condition that ship strikes and entanglements are pushing the huge whales to the point where they may disappear. 

"If people saw a dog or a cat in a similar sort of situation, they'd be outraged and wouldn't allow it to happen," said Joann Hamilton-Barry, author of The North Atlantic Right Whale: Past, Present, and Future.

The problem is not new. Indeed, it can be can be traced back to the origin of right whale's name.

"The right whale got its name because early whalers considered it to be the right, or the correct, whale to kill," she explains.

"It's large, it swims slowly at the surface, and close to shore, and it has lots of that valuable blubber that they harvested back in the early days of whaling."

Hamilton-Barry, who describes her book as non-fiction for all ages, said she wrote it to help people understand what's happening to a species in trouble. 

"As soon as I started doing research, I was amazed. And I thought, people should have an easy way to find out about this." 

The information she's providing isn't necessarily great news.

"There is a chance for the North Atlantic right whale. But if we continue on with the number of ship strikes and entanglements that we've had in the past, it's entirely possible that there will be no North Atlantic right whales left as soon as 2040."

Joann Hamilton-Barry, author of The North Atlantic Right Whale: Past, Present, and Future. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Entanglement is one of the biggest threats facing the species.

"A right whale and other aquatic mammals who are swimming through the water column can become entangled in fishing nets and fishing ropes… Rope can be wrapped around their body and in some cases it can make it so that they don't have full use of one of their their flippers, which would impede their ability to swim," she said.

A whale about town

The right whale has earned the title of "urban whale," because it so often swims in areas of the ocean with high shipping traffic. 

"This is a whale that tends to stay close to shore… So that whole range puts them in the same areas that are some of the busiest in the world for ship traffic and fishing."

This can lead to ship strikes.

"Ship strikes are the other leading killer of right whales. So right now there are speed restrictions in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. So scientists know that if ships travel a little bit more slowly it'll give right whales a chance to get out of the way of some of these huge ships."

The observation bubble aboard Lawson's Marine Mammal Survey plane. (CBC)

She said if the penalty is minor, "people who own shipping companies are going to possibly make that decision. You know, 'Well, we'll take the chance on getting fined for going too fast.' But the end result is that a whale could die."

One whale may not seem like a lot — but Hamilton-Barry said that every animal counts.

"There were seven right whale calves born [this year]... We've already had eight right whales die. So we're already in negative numbers," she said.

What can an ordinary person do?

She said that there are steps that people can take to ensure a healthy future for the species.

"A regular person can do something as basic as, when you're walking on the beach, pick up the plastic garbage that you find," she said. 

"Also, people need to be prepared to pay more for seafood so that fishermen will be able to try to change some of their practices to make it more sustainable so that whales aren't being harmed."

Hamilton-Barry still has hope that those fishermen can change their practices.

"They don't want to harm whales. They don't want to lose gear because that costs them money. And just in the last few years, I've seen a change of attitude that is much more of concern." she said.

Counting whales from the air

Jack Lawson, a scientist with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, conducts marine mammal surveys as part of his work. That involves flying a plane over the ocean, scanning the waters for sea mammals — including right whales.

Lawson said if he can see right whales during his flight over Newfoundland's Placentia Bay, he knows that something is wrong.

Watch: Here & Now's Carolyn Stokes joins Jack Lawson for an aerial survey of whales off Newfoundland:

"Obviously we're interested in knowing where these animals are because that tells us a little bit about where they might be at risk," Lawson said.

"If you find right whales in a shipping lane area, or in an area where there's fixed fishing gear, we want to know that."

Aerial surveys can help provide guidance to vessels operating in shipping lanes. 

Lawson said he is worried about future of the right whale.

"Even as of today, after years of not whaling, their numbers are still just a little over 400. It was 415 before the start of this summer," he said.

"More concerning, out of those 400 animals left, less than 100 probably are breeding females. So that's all you have left for the species in the world. It's fantastically difficult to find these animals, and we're very concerned about it."

Jack Lawson aboard an aeroplane, surveying the ocean for endangered right whales. (CBC)

Luckily, Lawson didn't run into any right whales when a CBC crew accompanied him on a recent flight.

"In some ways, I'd rather not see them in our waters," he said. 

"With the risk of ship strikes and vessel collisions, I'd rather they stay somewhere else and not have to worry about them."  

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

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