There aren't many of the majestic right whales left

January 07, 2007

The Wrong Stuff

There aren't many of the majestic right whales left

Environment Writer


Belly up and floating, the right whale found last weekend near Brunswick, Ga., died brutally, shredded by a propeller.

[foto] The Florida Times-Union/Bob Mack Biologists and others examine the head of a male right whale that was found dead off the Georgia coast near Jekyll Island on Dec. 30 and was towed to Fernandina Beach. Lacerations on the whale's head and lip suggest a boat propeller may have contributed to its death. Researchers who towed it to shore counted 20 deep cuts along its 41-foot-long body. They also found a skin pattern on its head that told them it was a calf they knew, born two years ago to a mother named Columbine. He was the fifth right whale in 2006 to die as a result of human contact.

Such deaths, scientists say, happen too often as the whales cope with increasing boat traffic in a busy Atlantic Ocean. The size and number of freighters and cruise boats has grown exponentially in 20 years.

The vessels are just one danger lurking in a changing ocean. The whales have plastic in their stomachs and contaminants like DDT in their blood. And they get tangled in fishing gear. Once researchers watched helplessly as a right whale mother tried to cradle her dying baby, ensnared in fishing gear, to keep it afloat.


"They sort of embody so many of the issues facing the ocean, just by all the things they're dealing with as individual animals," said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Right whale watchers have had their own frustrating experiences with whale deaths and entanglement in Volusia and Flagler counties, where the whales migrate offshore each winter. Two dead right whales have washed onto the beach in Flagler County since 1997, and last December rescuers tried to help a right whale spotted off Volusia with both flippers tangled in fishing gear.

For those who see live whales frolicking offshore, it's exciting, said Joy Hampp, coordinator of Marineland's volunteer right whale watching project, which reported 41 whale sightings in 2005.

But, Hampp said, it can be distressing to think, "Wow, I might be seeing one of the last of the species if we're not successful in conserving them."

For a while, it seemed the whales had a chance. Hunting was banned in
1935. But, the population has hovered at fewer than 400 and may be as low as 300. Scientists say the whales could be extinct within 100 to 200 years, less if struck with a catastrophic disease.

The future of the whales rests on a tiny fraction of the group: breeding females. Knowlton said saving just two a year could turn the population around.


But a whale's migration might be compared to a pregnant woman trying to cross major highways on foot on her way to a delivery room. Seven of the country's 15 busiest ports are found along the migration route between Maine and Florida.

Nearly 70 whales have been killed by collisions or fishing gear since
1970. In 2005, the scientists begged the National Marine Fisheries Service to do something to stop the deaths. The fisheries service responded with proposed rules to slow freighters and expects to release a final rule in the spring, said spokeswoman Connie Barclay.

The shipping industry is protesting the proposal to slow boats over 65 feet to as low as 10 knots within 30 nautical miles of ports along the Eastern seaboard.

The World Shipping Council, in comments to the service, said it supports rerouting ships and tracking whales so ships can steer clear of the animals. But the council questioned why the Navy and boats less than 65 feet are exempt and said the service doesn't have evidence that slowing boats down would prevent whales from getting hit. The opposite may be true, the council wrote, because slower ships are harder to maneuver and not as noisy as a ship running at higher speeds.

The council estimates the rule could cost the industry more than $50 million a year.

Scientists like the proposed rules, although they wish the process would move faster and question why the Navy is exempt.

"The shipping companies and everyone concerned about the economic impact of slowing ships are complaining, but the fact of the matter is they are killing a couple of whales a year," said Scott Kraus, vice president of research at the New England Aquarium. "If you can slow the ships down, you can save the whales, as long as the reproduction doesn't fail."


Researchers find it difficult to single out one reason for the low reproduction. The lack of available food may be one cause, said whale expert Michael Moore with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. Pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and even noise may contribute. The chemicals feed natural algae and bacteria that give off toxins that kill marine mammals.

Because they don't understand the causes, it's worrisome.

"If there's something we're doing that's creating the reproductive failure and we don't know what it is, we're going to continue to do it," Kraus said. "The whales may be the most visible charismatic consequence, but, if it's affecting right whales, it's affecting other things along the way, and that's what we should be paying attention to."


Informant: binstock



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