Right Whales Need Our Help—Right Now

North Atlantic Right Whale with Calf
Mothers lead their calves on the migratory path along the U.S. east coast.
Credit: Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Guest author: Anika Agarwal, Marine Mammal Protection Project Summer Intern 

Eight North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this month. With an estimated population size of 524 individuals, and only five calves born this year, the loss of these whales is a devastating blow to the population.

Three of the whale carcasses show signs of blunt trauma consistent with vessel collision. One was found entangled in fishing gear. The cause of death of the remaining five whales is still being investigated.

An emblem of America’s east coast, each year North Atlantic right whales travel through the waters of our coastal states, following their migratory path between feeding areas off New England and Canada and nurseries in the shallow waters of the southeast coast. Right whales stay near the water’s surface, breaching and slapping their fins, and mothercalf pairs are known for their gentle, playful nature.

Entanglement and vessel collisions are two of the most serious threats that North Atlantic right whales face today. Whales become entangled in thick ropes and nets when they swim through fishing areas—an incredible 72 percent of right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives. Ropes can become deeply embedded in the skin and cause severe injuries, often to the fins or mouth. Entanglement can also cause changes in swimming behavior, making it difficult to feed, migrate, and socialize. The drag from the ropes force the whales to swim more slowly and expend more energy, which can cause the whale to slowly starve to death.

Ship collision is also extremely dangerous. Serious injuries include bleeding, bluntforce trauma, propeller cuts, and broken bones. About 38 percent of reported right whale deaths between 1986 and 2005 could be attributed to vessel collisions. It’s believed that their behavior makes them particularly vulnerable as they tend to swim just beneath the water’s surface, making them almost invisible to ship captains.

Entanglement, vessel collisions, and noise pollution all cause significant levels of stress in right whales. Stress increases metabolic rate and forces whales to expend extra energy, which in turn reduces their health and, subsequently, their ability to reproduce successfully. The accumulation of these threats is making it incredibly difficult for North Atlantic right whale populations to recover from historic whaling, and the latest data indicates the population is now in decline.

Entangled North Atlantic Right Whale
Efforts to disentangle a North Atlantic right whale from fishing gear; 72% of all right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives.
Credit: Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

And now, North Atlantic right whales are facing an assault from the oil and gas industry. The Trump administration intends to allow seismic surveying in the mid-Atlantic. The massive proposed survey area directly overlaps with the North Atlantic right whale’s migratory corridor, and the noise emitted from the seismic blasts is likely to impact critical calving habitat. This may drown out vital communication between mothers and their calves, as well as disrupt their ability to navigate and find food. It is the opinion of 28 right whale biologists, including some of the world’s leading experts on the species, that the impacts of the proposed seismic surveys may well be a “tipping point” that will drive the species towards extinction.1

There are many other endangered whales living off our coasts that face similar threats, including gregarious humpbacks, majestic blue whales, and awe-inspiring sperm whales. Ocean noise severely impacts fish and marine invertebrates; seismic blasting has been found to decimate zooplankton up to three quarters of a mile away. Seismic therefore puts the fundamental building blocks of marine food chains, upon which we and marine mammals rely, at serious risk.

Help protect the North Atlantic right whale and make your voice heard in the fight against Atlantic seismic. 

1Statement from C. Clark, S. Kraus, D. Nowacek, A. J. Read, A. Rice, H. C. Rosenbaum, M. Baumgartner, I. Biedron, M. Brown, E.A. Burgess, T. Frasier, C. Good, P. Hamilton, M. Johnson, R. D. Kenney, A. Knowlton, N. S. Lysiak, C. Mayo, W. A. McLellan, B. MacLeod, C. A. Miller, M. J. Moore, D. A. Pabst, S. Parks, R. Payne, D. E. Pendleton, D. Risch, and R. Rolland to the President of the United States (Apr. 14, 2016).