Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XI No. 1 - January 2002


The Challenge of Extinction

By William Rossiter


Right now, somewhere off Georgia and Florida, a North Atlantic right whale may be born. Think of a puppy the size of a bus, full of play and mother's milk, starting an eighty-year life in a human-crowded ocean, embodying our hope that we will not make her kind extinct. Linked to recent food resources, this may be another record year, but only a small fraction of the 300 surviving right whales in the North Atlantic are reproductively available females, or "waiting mothers". One of the sad truths of this remnant population is the increase in birth intervals for an average mother. For these right whales the interval has widened from 3.67 years between 1980 and 1992, to 5.8 years between 1990 and 1998, to the current 6.2 years.

The new calf will be found and photographed within days by one of the flurry of very effective aerial surveys. Last year all but one of the record-setting 31 calves were identified before they reached the summer range. Several times the close aerial watch kept on the calves prevented boat collisions. But deaths set a record too, leaving the official population at only 300 individuals. Four of the seven that died were calves, two from ship collisions. Several adults were likely taken the same way, one handicapped by an entanglement. The saga of #1102, the whale the media personalized as Churchill, woke the public up to the entanglement tragedies playing out every day, everywhere humans deploy nets, traps and lines. Churchill was a suffering whale that fought every heroic rescue attempt with astonishing, frightening strength, dogged by our helpless technology. Seeming to rot in front of us, Churchill compelled us to accept responsibility as we watched this lone whale suffer a prolonged death as a direct result of our actions. The right whale symbolizes the disastrous effects we can have on anything, even one of the most enormous and powerful of the Earth's creatures. We can see their scars and cuts, and watch them drag things thousands of miles. We cannot see the effects of our noise and chemicals, or the habitats we deny them with our actions.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium's October meeting displayed how hundreds of people now have focused their careers and skills to save these 300 whales, one whale at a time. The latest information was shared, and much progress was reported, but these folks are fighting what statistics say is inevitable; the North Atlantic right whale will become extinct.

Recent research suggests that extinction might be prevented if we can save just two more females per year. To help, innovations in buoy and net designs to reduce entanglements are flowing in. The best recently won awards, and many more could be deployed soon. Strategies for reducing ship collisions include cajoling companies to put up with some inefficiency for a good cause, such as slower speeds and alternate routes through whale-congested areas. The often-criticized National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), accused by one judge as having "the mañana approach to rule making", and by others for questionable use of Congressional funding, is responding with many rules and regulations, but also with some frustration at the time and energy absorbed by legal challenges. While criticized for not focusing enough limited resources directly on saving whales, NMFS complains that these complaints absorb even more staff time, energy and money. Many believe that NMFS is concentrating on the process rather than the product. Some scientists also feel that NMFS invokes "easy" constraints to scientific research, where permits can be very hard to get, while ignoring "difficult" problems such as the 40 knot, 300 foot catamaran ferries that drive blithely near whales, yet do not get slapped by officials.

Several other cetacean species are near extinction, such as the baiji in China and vaquita in Mexico. In every case bureaucracies have been slow to respond until science overcame the economic and political obstacles with the screaming reality of extinction, predicted by the hard rules of nature. But as our uncontrolled technology has accelerated if not caused these extinctions, perhaps we can grow up fast enough to find the technology to fight these most final rules of Nature, and save these remnant species in spite of ourselves. To follow what is being tried or done for right whales see the soon to be completed: http://www.rightwhaleweb.org. Or read the "Right Whale News" on-line at http://www.graysreef.nos.noaa.gov/rightwhalenews.html.


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