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Right whale population teeters on brink of extinction

BY CHUCK BROWN
Telegraph-Journal
September 29/03

    ST. ANDREWS - With only 325, maybe 350, North Atlantic right whales in existence conservationists have little room for optimism but no end of hope, says one leading New Brunswick marine researcher.
   "It's not a pleasant picture," Laurie Murison, the managing director of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, said of the right whale's future. "Throughout the 1990s the population was declining and the calculation was 190 years and they'll be gone. It's that close to reality. "
   Ms. Murison said she tries not to think of those dire projections. She and others who work with the mam moth mammals continue to be relent less in their search for insight.
   "It's a tremendous challenge to be able to protect these animals," Ms. Murison said Saturday during the Nature Trust of New Brunswick's annual general meeting in St. Andrews.
   Marine scientists are working to unravel the mysteries that still surround the whales and to learn what people can do to help prevent their deaths and, ultimately, their extinction. Historically, the whales were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Newfoundland and Labrador, but heavy whaling in those areas decimated those populations. The Bay of Fundy right whales have only been commonly known and studied since about 1980 and Ms. Murison said sci entists are still learning about their behaviour.
   "They keep changing and they keep surprising us," she said.
   Researchers know, for example, that the whales generally give birth in the winter off the coasts of Florida and Georgia. But they still don't know for sure the length of their gestation period.
   There are also likely some unknown factors that are putting the remaining right whales at risk, Ms. Murison said, but researchers are certain that their greatest danger has been the same for 1,000 years - humans.
   Even their name is a reminder of that human threat. They're called the right whale because the slow-moving animals, prized for their blubber and baleen, were, until the 1930s, considered the right whale to hunt.
   The modern human threats are ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
   Ms. Murison said efforts to reduce those risks are ongoing. Last year, for example, shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were re-drawn so massive ships are no longer travelling in the same waters favoured by the right whales.
   Still, "it's not a total solution," Ms. Murison said.
   The large ships are being steered away from known whale areas but smaller, faster-moving vessels continue to be a threat. Ms. Murison showed a photo of one right whale named "Radiator" because of its dramatic scars from being struck by a boat's propellor.
   It may seem a simple problem to solve but getting boats and ships to slow down isn't easy, Ms. Murison said. And the right whale, with no dorsal fin and an ability to stay underwater for 20 minutes, can be difficult to see and avoid.
   Fishing gear is as serious a threat as ship strikes and entanglements are painfully common. There are usually several stories of whale entanglements - right whales and other species - in the Bay of Fundy every year. Ms. Murison said about 60 per cent of the right whales bear scars from brushes with fishing ropes and nets. That figure is particularly troubling because with such a small population, every unnatural death is devastating.
    "You can't even afford to lose one," Ms. Murison, said.
   "The population could collapse in a very short period of time."
   The entanglements can also be troubling on a more visceral level.
   "Some of these are gruesome."
    When right whales do get caught up in fishing gear, the powerful animals tend to roll and thrash, making the entanglement worse. Once they're knotted and bound, it's difficult to free them.
   "They will not accept help," Ms. Murison said.
   Fatal entanglements aren't usually drownings, but infections.
   Ms. Murison described one whale that had both flippers tangled in a rope that became wrapped across her back. "She literally sawed her back in half and died from the infection," Ms. Murison said.
   Reducing that fishing gear threat is yet another challenge. Theories and ideas abound, finding and implementing the best ones is tough. Solutions considered have included everything from changing fishing seasons to developing and using a special rope that will disintegrate when it contacts blubber.
   The North Atlantic is one of three right whale species. There is also the North Pacific right whale, which also numbers in the hundreds and there are Southern right whales with a population that has rebounded to anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000.

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