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Gaps in knowledge complicate efforts to save endangered right whales

A female right whale swims at the surface

A female right whale swims at the surface of the water with her calf a few miles off the Georgia coast in 2009.  Credit: AP / John Carrington

Even to admirers, who have struggled for decades to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, these creatures remain mysterious and even bizarre.

“It’s just so mind blowing to see these extraordinary weird looking animals,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies, a Provincetown, Massachusetts, nonprofit.

The right whales’ heads and tails make up so much of their bodies because their mouths must be enormous to filter enough of the tiny plankton they feed on while their tails must be powerful enough to simultaneously propel them through water.

Just think how much force it takes to tow an open bucket in the ocean alongside a boat, Mayo explained.

With the number of breeding females plunging to about 95, the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation on Thursday added them to its Red List of the most at-risk species.

“The threats are omnipresent — one study found 85% of right whales bear scars from past entanglements,” with fishing lines, it said.

Much remains unknown about this species though the United States has classified them as critically endangered — the worst ranking — since 1970. Only about 400 remain, down from around 500 in 2010.

This summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will propose a rule to cut the risk of entanglements by 60% and will report on the effectiveness of current ship strike measures.

The entanglement protections also will benefit other whales, said NOAA spokeswoman Allison Ferreira.

Devising technological improvements — lobster traps that need no rope, or can be raised to the surface at the push of a button and their location marked invisibly — has been tough. Mayo recalled one of his early safeguards — fishing gear that breaks apart if it snags a whale that then all too often disastrously spins to try to free itself — has not succeeded as he had hoped.

“There is still so much to know,” said Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist at the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, a Hampton Bays nonprofit. Questions include, for instance, how the whales feeding grounds shift — and how the whales find them. “It’s important to know where they are — and where they are not.”

“We don’t even know what their vocalizations mean,” said Mayo, though some researchers say right whales sometimes may simply be saying say “I’m here.”

Their twin killers — injuries from ships and fishing gear, including lobster traps’ vertical lines — were identified decades ago.

Looking at five species of large whales, in the last three years, an average of one whale has stranded about every 24 days, DiGiovanni said.

“Despite legal requirements to reduce fishery-related mortality, little or no real progress has been made over the last two decades,” according to a University of Rhode Island report. The right whale population would have shot up 25% to 30% since 1990, the report estimated, had a best-case scenario for stopping fishing gear from trapping them been enacted.

Right whales, which can live seven decades and reach 70 tons, calve off Georgia and Florida in autumn before returning as far north as Canada. In recent years, they have been spotted in the New York-New Jersey Bight — from Montauk Point to New Jersey’s Cape May — as the water quality has improved.

Though ship cargo at the Port Authority has slipped during the pandemic, last year it rose to 5,231,418 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), a measure of cargo capacity based on the volume of a 20-foot-long intermodal container. The 2010 total was just 4,097,422 TEUs.

“If we could slow all boats to 5 to 10 knots around the world, we probably would have very low ship strikes,” Mayo said. Tankers typically travel from 10 to 15 knots though, when right whales are in certain protected areas, ships must slow to 10 knots.

Other protections, such as alarms tankers might set off, for example, might cause the whales to freeze in place or panic them and other sea creatures, the experts said, calling on the public to help by reporting sightings and supporting research.

The low birth rate of these whales raises the risks they will vanish from the the seas, as NOAA says only a dozen calves have been spotted since 2017.

"This, together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017 (part of a declared Unusual Mortality Event), accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births," NOAA says.

Said Mayo, “The animal is going extinct and we are shooting in the dark."

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