Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XI No. 4 - October 2002

Whales Versus Nets and Boats

By William Rossiter, CSI President

Right whales keep being emphasized by CSI, in part as an example of an extreme case of broad-spectrum human impacts on a species, and the increasing scramble by a broad consortium of experts to find solutions even as the statistics suggest the population may be doomed. We draw attention to this case study to serve other emerging regional problems worldwide, and to bring home the message that it's far better and cheaper to prevent problems than to try to solve them later. This is not to imply any criticism of the dedicated experts, but should serve as a model for managers and politicians elsewhere that will be faced with something similar soon.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) Subcommittee on the Safety of Navigation, meeting in London in July, approved Transport Canada's proposal to move the position of shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy by amending the 1983 Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) for vessel traffic, up to 800 large ships per year, in order to reduce the potential for interaction between North Atlantic right whales and vessels. The proposed change is expected to reduce the relative probability of the potential for ship strikes of right whales by as much as 80 percent. Endorsed by the Bahamas, Croatia, Germany, Panama, Sweden and the United States, it also was supported by several shipping companies, including the New Brunswick-based Irving Oil, Ltd., and INTERTANKO, the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners. After IMO Marine Safety Committee consideration, final IMO adoption is expected in December. If adopted, Transport Canada will implement the changes six months after IMO adoption. Implementation includes publication of new navigation charts and notices to mariners. The new routes will hopefully go into effect in the summer of 2003. CSI especially congratulates Dr. Moira Brown, Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA, and Canadian Whale Institute, Bolton, Ontario, for her skilled combination of science and diplomacy to bring these changes about.

Ship strikes were responsible for at least 36% of all right whale mortalities between 1970 and 1999, and 56% since 1991, causing fractured skulls, severed tails, and large propeller slashes. Survivors suffer debilitating injuries that obviously affect the population's stagnation.

The Northeast Consortium, a partnership of four New England-based research institutions, recently awarded grants to support four right whale research projects, and another three awards were made this spring from the National Whale Conservation Fund (NWCF) for right whale research. While the remaining right whales tempt fate with ships, fishing gear, and pollutants, the Canadian North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Team met in September, the public comment period for the draft management plan for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary continues until 18 October, and the Southeast U.S. Right Whale Recovery Plan Implementation Team and the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium will meet in October. A continual flow of scientific papers continues, and management plans are constantly being reviewed. Will they be in time?

Entangled right whales are another major problem for the vulnerable population, but they are also an animal welfare issue. One of the latest was Polaris, a 45 foot male catalogued as 1427 and born in 1984, who had been seen every year except 1986. Polaris was first found entangled in early June, off New Jersey. The initial rescue was beaten back by weather after attaching a radio buoy and removing some line. He was seen off Delaware and North Carolina in July, where a well-intentioned boater removed the telemetry buoy and more of the line. Polaris was last seen off Georgia a few days later, 664 nautical miles south from his initial sighting, with video footage showing wide patches of peeling and pocked skin, and the thick line wrapped around and embedded in his mouth and jaw. Polaris traveled south towards the calving grounds during a time of year when most right whales are in New England and Canadian waters, while last summer mortally entangled Churchill (#1102) was tracked from Massachusetts to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to Nova Scotia. Ten years ago a seriously injured female swimming south off the Georgia coast in September later died with her calf off St. Augustine, Florida. This photo shows the scars left by gear wrapped around this right whale's tail, but at least she escaped and survived. While all the events are tragic, and often get remarkable media attention, funding for the Center for Coastal Studies Disentanglement Program is almost always too little too late.

Right whale
Right whale. Photo by William Rossiter.

Entangled humpback whales get equal attention, but occur in far greater numbers. Besides providing the core disentanglement team and training, the Center for Coastal Studies studies scars and marks to establish the numbers of whales that were entangled but escaped. Recently the Center's scientists reviewed data on North Pacific humpbacks, where the research has focused more on aggression between males, to try to clarify how many scars may instead be caused by entanglement. Obviously, that experience will allow a review of North Atlantic humpbacks scars to distinguish between entanglements and battle scars between individuals. Whether or not humpbacks beat up on each other, our fishing gear is taking too large a toll.

Australia's disentanglement teams respond to the same kinds of events. Although far fewer than in the U.S., they are increasing as the humpback population rebounds and migrating whales swim close to shores protected by the controversial shark nets to protect human bathers. In late August a week-old humpback calf was found dead near the spot rescuers had tried but failed to free his mother. She was finally freed days later by an in-water effort by Sea World and Queensland Fisheries Department staff. Some entangled whales succumb to Australia's noted sharks, a lingering suffering that fuels heroic rescue efforts. In July commercial divers rescued a right whale tangled in crab pots, well aware that sharks were close. In December a small humpback that had already had most of a pectoral fin torn away by sharks was rescued, as her body language told the rescuers she accepted whatever they could do, and one man stood on her head to cut the ropes. Skeptics would declare the placid behavior as shock, but she swam away when freed, albeit painfully. Most rescue teams will not allow people in the water, because of obvious risks and some very close calls by heroic but perhaps misguided efforts. While many rescuers comment with awe on the way a whale seems to understand their intentions and cooperate in the rescue, other rescuers' experiences with the impossible power of a pain-crazed whale demand a responsible, experienced caution. One image of a would-be rescuer lashed to the side of a dying whale, sort of a saintly Ahab, would have extreme consequences on the growing effort and need to rescue these incredible creatures that suffer because of us.

The Cetacean Bycatch Action Network, a global response team, was formed in late July as scientists at the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, met to discuss remedies for the estimated 60,000 cetaceans killed every year by fishing gear entanglements. Research presented at the meeting detailed the impact of unintentional bycatch by fishing vessels. One region estimated a loss of 10 whales and dolphins a day. A January meeting of experts in Annapolis, Maryland had concluded that the single biggest threat facing cetaceans worldwide is death in fishing gear. Bycatch kills almost three times the average annual kill from commercial whaling in the 20th century, which at 21,470 per year, caused population declines several species may never recover from.

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