This article was from the May 4/99 addition of the Times Globe in Saint John, N.B.

The latest death of an adult female right whale after a collision
a ship has a preservation roup actively seeking a solution

Times Globe staff writer

    With last month's death of Staccato, one of only 65 female right whales left on the planet, it's time to step up the effort to save the species, says a prominent right whale researcher.
    Dr. Moira Brown, of the preservation group East Coast Ecosystems, said it's time to turn to technology for help.
    "We've got to pull out all the stops if we want to keep these whales around," said Dr. Brown.
    "We feel the ultimate way to stop mortality of right whales from large ships is to figure out a way for the ships to know where these right whales are – some sort of forward looking sonar. "
    Existing sonar systems, she explained, have not been "fine tuned" enough to tell the difference between the mammoth mammals and schools of fish. Another problem is that current technology can't look far enough ahead for the whales.
    Large ships need about five kilometres to stop and about three kilometres to complete a turn, said Dr. Brown, so whale-detecting sonar would have to be advanced enough to give adequate warning.
    "To the best of our knowledge that technology does not exist yet."
    So researchers in Canada and the United States have combined forces on the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium to try to encourage study to that end.
    "In the United States," explained Dr. Brown, "the group is appealing to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal government agency charged with the protection of marine mammals, to free up some money in order to be able to do this technological research.
    "Our feeling is basically that we can't just keep flying aerial surveys on good weather days if we're really going to be serious about this whale being around a hundred years from now. We really need to pull out all the stops and come up with some very creative and innovative solutions so these whales can be better seen in their marine environment. "
    Actively avoiding whales, said Dr. Brown, seems to be the only solution since whales don't seem to be able to avoid ships.
    While it takes far less room for a whale to turn, Dr. Brown said experts aren't sure why whales can't avoid the ships. She said very little is known about the whales' ability to see obstacles in their path. The more food in the water, however, the less visibility. And naturally, whales will follow huge schools of plankton.
    They also don't seem to be able to hear the massive ships in time. That, explained Dr. Brown, is because the ocean "is actually a pretty noisy environment for most marine mammals. "
    And while the ships are making noise, the sound from their rear propulsion systems gets drowned out as it travels forward through the hull of the ship.
    "In all likelihood, we suspect the ships are not making much noise."
    Another option, said Dr. Brown, is modifying the technology used by store owners to signal the entrance of patrons. just as beams signal when someone walks into a store, beams could be used to warn when a whale crosses into a shipping lane.
    Dr. Brown said the idea goes something like this: Buoys fine the shipping lanes and beams are projected between the buoys. When a whale trips the beam, ships in the area are warned.
    The Coast Guard already tracks all large vessels by radar that ply the waters of the Bay of Fundy.
    Right now, the only time the captains of those ships are notified about whales is if one is spotted and reported to the Coast Guard. If there was a beam system set up in the Bay, the Coast Guard could automatically warn captains by radio about whales in the area.
    That primitive system, she said, is obviously not working well enough.
    At least three right whales have died in the Bay of Fundy since 1992 after being hit by ships. But it's not the only area where right whales are losing the battle to ships' hulls.
    Two weeks ago, a 60-tonne female right whale was found on a beach off Cape Cod. The autopsy, said Dr. Brown, indicated that Staccato was just the latest victim of a ship collision. She had massive fractures of her jaw bone, and five broken vertebrae.
    The only thing that could have caused that much damage to such a huge mammal is a ship hit.

'We really need to pull out all the stops
and come up with some very creative
and innovative solutions so these whales
can be better seen in their marine environment.'
Dr. Moira Brown, of East Coast Ecosystems.

    Losing one of only 65 females left was a severe blow to the right whale population.
    "When you lose an adult female," said Dr. Brown, "you lose her plus the calves she would have had. "
    Since 1990, eight right whales have died as a result of ship collisions nearly half of all the documented right whale deaths during that period.
    One of the ideas that has been tossed about lately is moving shipping lanes in an effort to avoid collisions. Dr. Brown said the idea isn't as simple as it sounds. She also warns against rushing in too soon.
    "Moving shipping lanes sounds like an easy solution to the problem, but again, you don't want to move shipping lanes so you end up with a problem of vessels running aground."
    That risks an even larger problem for the struggling species – pollution.
    "What really needs to be looked at, and what we are in the process of looking at, is where the highest density of right whales areas are in the Bay of Fundy over the last dozen or so years, and exactly where the ships are." So for several months of the year, Dr. Brown joins other researchers in the North Atlantic and studies exactly that issue.
    Ship collisions aren't the only danger in the waters of the Bay of Fundy. Whales have become trapped and entangled in fishing gear. just last year, two right whales were trapped in a weir off the coast of Grand Manan. After two days, and much damage to the weir, both whales swam to freedom appearing none the worse for wear.
    While the Grand Manan story had a happy ending, many such encounters do not, said Dr.- Brown. Dozens are whales are currently travelling up and down the North Atlantic coast dragging heavy fishing gear behind them.
    The worst scenarios are with very young whales. As they grow, the unforgiving nets that are wrapped around them can damage blood vessels and internal organs, eventually killing them.
    Another possibility is closing the fishing season in the Bay of Fundy during peak right whale season.
    The recommendation was contained in a list of 43 arrived at over the last 18 months by the region's right whale recovery team that was headed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the World Wildlife Fund.
    DFO has also purchased equipment to help free entangled whales. Next month, officials in this area will gather together to learn how to use the equipment and work together to successfully free entangled whales.