New policy and tech keeps right whales afloat, but there is work left to do

A breaching North Atlantic right whale. c. IFAWRecently, more than 100 North Atlantic right whales were seen off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

While the North Atlantic right whale remains one of the most critically endangered species in the world, sightings are becoming increasingly frequent in this region.

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies reported that in a recent aerial survey 113 right whales were sighted —the most in one day since 2011. There have also been signs of mating, as well as feeding and nursing of calves in Cape Cod Bay - all promising developments for the population.

While populations were once plentiful, and sightings were common, the right whale suffered a terrible fate at the hands of commercial whalers until the early 20th century.

Even though they are no longer hunted, they still remain threatened by human activities, including ship collisions and entanglement with commercial fishing gear.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has been and continues to be, instrumental in creating technologies and advocating for policies that will ensure the remaining right whales have the protection they need.

In December 2008, the Ship Strike Rule went into effect in an effort to reduce the amount of right whale deaths due to the slow moving species’ collisions with ships. 

The Ship Strike Rule requires ships greater than 65 feet in length to reduce their speed to 10 knots within 20 nautical miles of key ports along the coast, where the highest overlap of whales and ships exist. By traveling at speeds of 10 knots or less, research has proven we can reduce the risk of collision-induced deaths by close to 80%.

However, this year the Ship Strike Rule will “sunset," meaning it will automatically expire unless the U.S. takes action to renew it.

IFAW will work to ensure this important rule remains in effect.

In addition, IFAW collaborated with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and EarthNC to develop Whale Alert, an app for iPads and iPhones that helps mariners comply with the speed restrictions, thereby protecting right whales and avoiding monetary fines.

A series of acoustic buoys with small satellites detect right whale calls in real time, then send that information to the bridges of ships, alerting those on board to the locations of the detected whales.

The app also alerts ships when they have crossed into right whale management areas so they can adjust their speeds accordingly. 

Whale Alert is free to download in the iTunes store and is a major breakthrough in technology, putting right whale conservation on the vessels and in the hands of ship captains. 

Entanglement has also been a major cause for concern – North Atlantic right whales are known for feeding at the ocean’s surface with their mouths wide open.

Because right whales often feed where commercial fishermen set their traps, they can easily become entangled: the fishing line gets caught in their baleen or on their fins, creating a significant drag as they swim.

In some cases it wraps so tightly around the whale that it causes deep cuts which lead to infection, disease, and in some cases death.

In April 2009, a rule was established requiring fishermen from Maine to Florida to use fishing lines that sink to the ocean floor, replacing the floating line which is thought to present a greater hazard to right whales.

While this hopefully affords North Atlantic right whales more protection, they can still become entangled in the vertical fishing lines that run down from surface buoys, and other fishing gear such as gillnets.

As a member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, IFAW works to reduce the risk of entanglement, through collaboration with government officials, scientists and fishermen alike.

In another initiative to prevent entanglement, Scituate (MA) fishermen have banded together to retrieve damaged fishing gear from the ocean.

With the aid of a $3,000 grant from IFAW, fishermen have been hauling in many types of fishing gear which littered the ocean following Hurricane Sandy and a series of nor’easters this past winter.

The hope is that this pilot program will expand, as entanglement is a vast problem which affects not just the eastern seaboard, but the entire world.

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered species in the world, with only around 500 remaining.

Their fight to survive is a constant struggle, and policies to reduce ship strikes and entanglements, along with adequate resources for scientists to study their behavior, can help us make sure the right whale population stays afloat.

If the right steps are taken, occurrences like the recent sightings in Cape Cod can become more common, and these magnificent creatures will finally be able to recover to their healthy, populous numbers.

--BA

For more information about our efforts to protect whales from harm, visit our campaign page.

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