Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 1 - January 2007

Right Whales: Congress Fails to Commit Funds to Save The Species

By William Rossiter

396 North Atlantic Right Whales may be alive today, not the 300-350 whales you've been reading about for years. Does this mean a huge population surge? No, just that constantly refined science has shown that the earlier assumptions were too low. While the population seems to be growing at about 1 percent a year, there still are not enough to tolerate even one killed by human impacts, and human impacts remain a significant cause of death. In contrast, with less human pressures, the southern right whale's growth rate is about 7 percent per year and, according to the CSI-assisted study by Jimena Belgrano, has spread to a calving ground 500 km south of the well-known Peninsula Valdez.

396 is now "the most reasonable estimate", based on 330 catalogued whales, 40 whales likely to be added to the catalog, and 26 calves from 2004 and 2005. This was the lead news in the 2006 Right Whale Report Card, the first presentation at the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium in early November. The Consortium is unique and inspirational; several hundred specialists cooperating to try to save the species, led by a cadre of experts who have literally committed their careers to this one goal. Their work shows that 19 calves were born in 2006 but at least three died, two from ship strikes. Of six whales known to have been killed by human causes, three were female and five were from ship strikes. Some very positive news was that the average interval between a female's calves now is 3.2 years, down from 2002's calving interval of 6.5 years.

Two comments must be made about entanglements, a major focus of the Consortium. First, the suffering: Imagine a nylon fishing line knotted around your wrist, and draped over your back so that every movement caused the cinch to cut into your flesh, and then bone, until your hand's tissue was dead. Right whales may suffer such injury until the infections become massive enough to kill, and all the while there is a pain we cannot imagine. But they may also shed the gear, or be disentangled with courageous human help, and live to show the scars the majority of right whales bear today, like this female's tailstock. But second, these are right whales. More buoyant than other species they are designed for incredible power at slow speeds. None of the other species of cetaceans that become entangled have this species' abilities to drag gear, and so most probably die very quickly. No one knows how many suffer this way, only that right whales may survive to suffer much linger than others.

Right whale

Right whale. Photo by William Rossiter.

To observe the Consortium's two day exchange of information is both exhilarating and frustrating, because despite their very best efforts it is clear that the US government is not responding adequately to its responsibility to save the species. Why? Because of political and economic pressures NMFS is unable to accomplish even what they want to do.

To some it appears that, perhaps on orders from above, NMFS is wasting money and energy in several ways: For example, a million dollar Environmental Impact Statement is in "progress", designed to protect NMFS from lawsuits over right whale and other research. For another, while blaming cutbacks of essential programs and projects on a lack of funds (see below), NMFS chose to spend about $160,000 so far to prepare a public survey on "The Public's Willingness to Pay". The survey is supposed to determine what the American public is willing to pay to provide "additional" (adequate) protection for right whales, but the questions and assumptions bordered on the ridiculous and the bias was clear. CSI and many others commented negatively on the survey, which ultimately assumes that the results will affect Congress' willingness to appropriate funds.

The Report Card for the "do nothing" 109th Congress deserves a failing grade. In a rush they passed a continuing resolution in December for most of the FY07 budget appropriations that allows only $5.5 million for right whale work. NMFS will absorb most of that, leaving very little available for independent studies of right whales. As a result the next Consortium's Report Card may say "no data", leaving everyone ignorant, and the government (intentionally?) more powerless to fulfill their responsibilities. Besides limited stranding and entanglement responses, necropsies, visual surveys for ID's and biopsies for genetic and health assessments, the whale ID catalog may be stalled, along with essential monitoring and modeling of reproduction, mortality, and population. Besides 2007's year-long data gap, the cuts may force the migration of highly qualified specialists to find work. History's lesson is well proven; never allow a qualified work force to disburse, because the time and money to bring it back will be exorbitant.

Delays implementing the Ship Strike Reduction Rules also illustrate NMFS' lack of wherewithal to save this species. The proposed Rule to slow or reroute vessels to reduce whale deaths from collisions was published in June, but only after a lawsuit forced some action. In October a Court gave NMFS ten days to say when the Final Rules would be implemented; the Court is still waiting. The facts are that right whales share their eons-old habitat with ships, and the combined speed at impact can be the deciding factor between a headache and "overwhelming blunt trauma". But slowing or rerouting costs the shipping companies money. That cost would be passed to the consumer, along with increased taxes to fund government actions. NMFS's motive for the "The Public's Willingness to Pay" survey appears to be to find an excuse for not acting; do they want to blame the public for refusing to save the species? Their priority seems to be to avoid be sued by shipping companies.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Right Whale Consortium is that most member scientists act like advocates. These people put their hearts into it! While scientists in general remain professionally detached from issues, and avoid being drawn into advocacy actions, the Consortium is led by some truly dedicated experts. Dr. Michael Moore, for example, declared that the current science about right whales is enough for effective management, but that shipping and entanglement mortalities trigger no enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (something to ask your Congress about). Progress will require broad public support and, as they will inherit the shame, moral indignation is needed within the next generation - current 7th and 8th graders. Some of what Dr. Scott Kraus urged included promoting the right whale as an icon for sustainable ocean life, making a martyr of each dead whale, and while pressuring NMFS, respect them for what they can accomplish in their constrained environment.

An example of the Consortium's advocacy was the response to a last-minute conflict between at least 32 right whales that were lingering in the western Bay of Fundy and the opening of the Canadian lobster fishing season a few days later, creating a high risk of entanglements. A delay in the season was justified for the whales, but very costly to fishermen. Within days Canadian lobstermen voluntarily agreed to monitor the positions of right whales and to ban traps within two kilometers of any whale sighted. There is no doubt that members of the Consortium made every effort to resolve the conflict behind the scenes as well as politically. And CSI has no doubt that one of the most effective was Dr. Moe Brown.

Moira Brown Dr. Moira "Moe" Brown is one of those rare and gifted people who combine expertise, intelligence, dedication, diplomacy, and logic to reach and influence almost anyone to achieve her goal, which is to "save this population ... one animal at a time." Disarmingly self-effacing and always deflecting credit to others she uses "we" a lot. And so she has said: "We are creating a model that could be used for conservation and recovery of any endangered species" and "We're showing that people of varying interests can work together to create solutions". But most who know her well will agree that she has been the driving force creating several significant protections for right whales. For example, it took Moe's unique skills to overcome major obstacles so that shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were relocated, reducing the potential for right whale ship strikes by about 80 percent. By the time she finished several shipping companies supported the change, and both the United States and the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners formally complimented the quality of the proposal, the extensive work in scientific assessment of whale populations in the Bay of Fundy, the thorough evaluation of potential implications, and the extent of community consultation.

Just this November Canada asked the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to designate Roseway Basin off the southeast tip of Nova Scotia as an Area to be Avoided, as right whales often summer there. The slight route adjustment would keep ships traveling between the east coast and Europe from crossing the Basin. If approved the Basin would have to be avoided beginning in 2008. And who convinced Canada to do this? Moe would say it was done with the help of many others, but...

To rephrase her comment above, Moe Brown is the model that should be used for the conservation and recovery of any endangered species. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, joining past winners Farley Mowat and Dr. Jane Goodall. She has received more awards and has more formal responsibilities than we have space to list. She has the absolute respect of her peers, and is a mentor for many researchers. Her critical conservation research of right whales was supported by $150,000 from NMFS in 2006, less that NMFS's survey above. But, as one result of the slashed budget for 2007, her research will receive no funding from the US government next year. Please, will someone help us to understand how this is justified?

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