‘Going in the wrong direction’

North Atlantic right whales, named in a bygone era for being the “right” whale to kill, are a critically endangered species. Last month, NOAA released a preliminary estimate of 366 individuals remaining in the wild as of January 2019. But according to Sean Brilliant, senior conservation biologist of marine programs at the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the current number is more likely to be around 350, with only about 70 to 90 females remaining in this population.

“We’re always a year behind on the data,” Brilliant told Mongabay. “And although we’ve had only two deaths this year … the number is going to be even smaller this year. So it’s certainly going in the wrong direction.”

Hunting may no longer be an issue for North Atlantic right whales, but the species continues to decline due to human activities. The two biggest threats are fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes. This year alone, three whales have gotten caught up in fishing gear, and two calves died after getting hit by ships, according to data compiled by NOAA.

It’s estimated that 85% of North Atlantic right whales have gotten entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lives, and that 60% have gotten entangled multiple times.

A right whale entangled in fishing gear near Crescent Beach, FloridaImage by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759.

“The whale swims into the rope and its response is to try and roll out of it, but this often makes the entanglement worse,” Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana, told Mongabay in an email. “Disentanglement teams in the U.S. and Canada try to free the whales but in some cases the entanglement is too severe or in a place that cannot be freed and/or the whale is not seen again or the situation is too dangerous for the team to approach. Two recent entanglements seen in the U.S are through the mouth, making it virtually impossible to disentangle.”

As for ship strikes, it’s usually large vessels like cargo ships, some of them several football fields long, that are responsible for injuring or killing whales, especially at speeds faster than 10 knots. According to a study cited by Oceana, ships can reduce whale deaths by 86% if they slow down to 10 knots or less.

“Captains of ships don’t want to hit anything that’s in the water,” Brogan said. “They don’t know whether that’s a whale or a shipping container or a sunken ship or a submarine … and at slower speeds, they can maneuver away from those objects in the water, and at faster speeds it makes it more difficult.”

Conservationists have been developing alert systems that notify ships of nearby whales to try and get the vessels to slow down, but even with these advancements, the problem persists.

And it’s not just large container ships that pose a threat to these whales — even small vessels can injure or kill a whale, according to a new study co-authored by Brilliant.

“Something about the physiology of right whales makes them especially vulnerable to being struck by boats,” Brogan said. “We saw this past winter … two calves that were killed by what all signs point to as smaller recreational boats. They had propeller marks across their backs that suggested that they were coming from smaller boats that were moving fast. And so risk is not just limited to the big ships.”

Whales also tend not to move when they hear ships coming, or in some cases, they get closer to the ships, Brilliant says.

“When you apply ship noise near a whale … the respiration rate goes up, the behavior changes a little bit, the heart rate increases,” Brilliant said. “They tend to adhere and react to it, but they don’t get out of the way. They come to the surface, if anything, or they just continue doing what they’re doing and they’re just a little bit more on guard and that’s it. So they cannot be shooed away from an area.”

Keeping an eye on ship speeds

 In the U.S., any commercial vessel longer than 65 feet, or about 20 meters, is required to use an automatic identification System (AIS), GPS technology that publicly transmits its identity, speed and location. The Ship Speed Watch tool, which was launched in June, relies on AIS data collected by the NGO Global Fishing Watch, and feeds it into a data set that also includes information about speed restrictions in whale conservation areas along the eastern U.S. and Canadian coasts.

North Atlantic right whales are known to range between the southeastern U.S. and northeast Canada, with some whales historically going as far as Greenland or Iceland in the summertime. To help protect the species, the U.S. and Canadian governments have put two different types of speed restriction zones in place: mandatory and voluntary zones.

In the U.S., a ship caught speeding through a seasonal management area (SMA), which has mandatory speed restrictions, can face thousands of dollars in fines. But vessels don’t necessarily have to comply with voluntary speed restrictions, which apply in DMAs, and in many cases, they don’t. In a DMA south of Nantucket, 41% of ships were found to ignore the 10-knot speed limit suggestion between January and March 2020, with 92% being large cargo ships or tankers going at 18 knots (33 km/h) or faster, according to an Oceana analysis.

Map of vessel traffic over 10 knots in the Nantucket Dynamic Management Area (DMA) between January 22 and March 6, 2020. Image by Oceana.

“Oceana has analysts that are doing a data poll on a weekly basis,” Brogan said. “We then share that [data] with the coast guard in the United States and Transport Canada … so that they are aware of this, they can look into it, refer it to their enforcement and compliance folks. Both countries have been very interested to get this information because prior to Ship Speed Watch being launched, they had to do it all by hand, and it was a very labor intensive task. But this automates it and we can just send them an email every week or so.”

The tool also helps single out individual vessels that may not be complying with the rules, such as the CMA CGM Brazil.

“We reached out to them to offer them a chance to explain why their ship might have been behaving that way … if there were heavy seas, or they were having maneuverability problems or something like that,” Brogan said. “But we didn’t hear a thing back from them.”

Brilliant, who was not involved in the development of Ship Speed Watch, says the tool has great value in building awareness about speed restrictions, but that getting ships to reduce their speed wouldn’t entirely solve the problem.

“Globally, there’s been quite a lot of work to slow speeds of these large vessels down to 10 knots in an attempt to try and reduce whale mortality,” he said. “It certainly does reduce that probability, but will not solve this problem with speed restrictions. Clearly, the speed restrictions are not effective enough to prevent a highly endangered species like right whales from being driven to extinction.”

Other possible solutions would be keeping ships completely away from whale conservation areas, finding an effective way to drive whales away from areas with heavy ship traffic, or even redesigning boats so harm to whales is minimized, Brilliant said. But none of these solutions would be easy to implement, he added.

“I don’t know what plan D could be, and I’m not sure what plan E or F or G could be,” Brilliant said. “But we may need to come up with those plans as well. Otherwise, we’re just joking with ourselves that we’re serious about this as an issue.”

Can right whales recover?

The North Atlantic right whale may be teetering on the brink of extinction, but conservationists are still holding out hope that the species will recover. Brilliant says he’s encouraged by the fact that these whales are continuing to breed and produce calves.

“They’re doing everything they can to make sure they stay alive,” he said. “We need to make sure that we do [our part]. The other part of my optimism comes from the fact that at least in Canada, there is widespread interest, particularly from the managers, that is the government, to change … industries that are the cause of this decline of population. And although we haven’t gotten it right yet, I remain encouraged that they are continuing to refine, discuss and study and try and come up with better solutions so that we can solve the problem and prevent the mortalities.”

North Atlantic right whales have recovered from low numbers in the past, which offers another beacon of hope.

“North Atlantic right whale numbers have been in similar situations before and shown recovery,” Webber said. “Between 1990 and 2010, the population recovered from less than 300 to more than 500 before the recent decline.”

However, Webber added that such a recovery pivots on the cessation of needless whale deaths. “This means keeping the whales and the threats separated in times and areas where the whales are expected to be found, or where they are seen by scientists and others,” she said. “In places where they can’t be separated, we need to use all available technology to minimize the risks to the whales.”

Brogan says he hopes Ship Speed Watch can play a key role in helping to minimize risk to the species.

“We’re hoping that the regulations will be stronger, that the US government [will look] at modifications to the shipping regulations in the near future,” he said. “And we’re hoping that Ship Speed Watch is going to be a central part of that review and revision.


Conn, P. B., & Silber, G. K. (2013). Vessel speed restrictions reduce risk of collision-related mortality for North Atlantic right whales. ECOSPHERE, 4(4) doi:10.1890/ES13-00004.1

Kelley, D. E., Vlasic, J. P., & Brilliant, S. W. (2020). Assessing the lethality of ship strikes on whales using simple biophysical models. Marine Mammal Science. doi:10.1111/mms.12745

Banner image caption: A North Atlantic right whale rolling onto her side, revealing her white chin as her calf turns and swims towards her 16 miles off Cumberland Island, GA on January 26, 2013. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit #15488

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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