Four North Atlantic Right Whales. Image: Peter Duley, NEFSC/NOAA

With only a few hundred individuals left, North Atlantic Right Whales are some of the most endangered whales in the world, and this summer, things took a turn for the worse. A series of strandings in eastern Canada and New England has resulted in the deaths of at least 14 whales, which is nearly 4% of the entire species. Other North Atlantic right whales were seen alive but in distress, and it is unknown if these individuals were among the dead. So far, only 5 new calves have been born this year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service refers to a crisis like this as an “unusual mortality event,” and experts are now afraid for the future of this species. “This is unprecedented,” said Tonya Wimmer, Director of the Marine Animal Response Society. “No one has seen such a large die-off of North Atlantic Right Whales since the days of whaling.”

So, what’s going on? Two of the greatest threats facing the species are fishing gear entanglement and blunt force trauma resulting from being hit by a ship. “Fishing and shipping activity occurs throughout their migratory range, because their known habitats occur among the eastern seaboard of North America from Florida to Newfoundland, within about 100 kilometers of shore,” said Dr. Kimberly Davies, a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University. “Ship strikes and fishing entanglements account for nearly all diagnosed mortalities.”

Indeed, of the animals that have been necropsied so far this summer, almost all have evidence of blunt force trauma or fishing gear entanglement. Wimmer, who has participated in several of these necropsies, says that it can be “a pretty emotional experience.”

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“These are animals that I’ve had the pleasure of studying and watching for several decades, and it’s incredibly difficult to see them in this state, especially when human activities are involved,” she said.

Fortunately, we already know how to reduce whale mortality resulting from fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes. Managers can restrict fishing with certain types of gear in areas where whales are commonly found. Gear can be modified so that there’s less rope for whales to get entangled in, or modified to include rope with “weak links” that break when something as large as a whale hits it. There have also been attempts to make gear more obvious to whales, using acoustic “pingers” or brightly colored rope, so that the whales avoid it and don’t get tangled in the first place. So far, many of these gear restrictions are voluntary in both the US and Canada.

A right whale necropsy off Prince Edward Island, Canada. Photo credit: Marine Animal Response Society

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To reduce deaths from ship strikes, managers can either keep ships away from whales in the first place, or make the ships slow down so that a collision wouldn’t be fatal to the whale. Lanes have been moved to reduce the likelihood of ships hitting whales in the past, but this can increase shipping time and associated costs, and is often unpopular with industry. If ships can’t avoid whale habitat entirely, reducing their speed can still help reduce the risk of death from a collision. Speed reductions, like gear restrictions, are often voluntary.

Knowing where to implement these rules relies on knowing where the whales are going to be, which is complicated for such a wide-ranging species. Some of Davies’ research focuses on tracking whales, with the goal of helping to predict where they’ll be and when. “I am working to develop a real-time alerting system using autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders as right whale monitoring tools,” she said. “The gliders profile the water column listening for right whales and recording data, then every couple of hours they surface and send us right whale detections via satellite. We are working with 20 organizations to begin using this data to send out automated alerts to ships when the gliders hear right whales.”

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In this photo, you can clearly see that a dead right whale is entangled in fishing gear. Image: Marine Animal Response Society

Experts are concerned by the lack of progress on protecting these animals, given how beloved they are by the public. It is especially frustrating because the threats they face, and the policy solutions to address these threats, have been well known for many years. “While there were an unusually high number of deaths documented this year, there is nothing unusual about right whales being struck by ships or entangled in fishing gear,” Davies said.

Wimmer agreed. “These threats have been known for a very long time, action should not be taking so long,” she said. “The lack of political will to ensure adequate protection and mitigation measures are implemented to reduce the chances of these events from happening in the first place, is extremely frustrating and, frankly, angering.”

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Dr. David Shiffman is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying sustainable shark fisheries in Canada. You can follow him on twitter @WhySharksMatter, where he’s always happy to answer your questions about sharks. Author’s note: interview subject Dr. Kimberly Davies is in the same fellowship program.