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Endangered right whales need slower ship traffic to survive: scientists

BY CHRIS MORRIS
Canadian Press
August 19/05

    Scientists are recommending go-slow zones for ship traffic in their race to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.
   Whale experts studying the endangered right whale in the Bay of Fundy this summer said Friday that while there are more calves than usual, too many of the slow-moving leviathans are being killed in ship collisions.
   Moira Brown of the New England Aquarium said the Canadian government's decision to alter shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy two years ago has helped the right whale, but more changes are needed, especially along the U.S. East Coast.
   "Over the past 16 months, we've had an unprecedented number of deaths," Ms. Brown said in an interview from Lubec, Me., on the Bay of Fundy.
   "We lost eight animals and five were females, which means we lose not only those animals but their future offspring. Three of the adult females had nearly full-term fetuses at the time of their deaths. It has been a real big hit to the population in terms of reproductive future."
   Ms. Brown said that while scientists know of eight whale deaths in recent months, many more go undetected and unreported.
   "We are looking for measures that will reduce mortality," she said.
   "At this point, one right whale, especially an adult female with a fetus, makes a big difference."
   Scientists and environmentalists have called on the U.S. government to implement a number of changes to protect right whales as they migrate along the Atlantic coast between Florida and the Bay of Fundy.
   The recommendations include route changes for shipping lanes and speed limits when ships are entering areas at a time when right whales are known to be present.
   "Vessel speed is increasing in the marine industry," Ms. Brown said.
   "It's true that none of us likes speed limits, but I think it would make a dif ference."
So far, only the Canadian government has responded by altering shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy.
   Ms. Brown said the U.S. government is raising regulatory hurdles - including citing security concerns over speed limits - and has yet to make any significant changes.

   The North Atlantic right whale population is estimated at only 325 to 350 animals.
   A recent report by senior marine scientists, published in the journal Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, warns that the right whale faces extinction within 100 years if current mortality rates continue.
   Laurie Murison of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station in New Brunswick, said she has spotted 50 to 75 right whales in the Bay of Fundy this summer.
   She said there are at least eight mother and calf pairs.
   Ms. Murison said people are constantly searching for ways to make life safer for the baleen whales, which can grow to the size of a city bus and are notorious for lolling on the surface.
   She said one scientist is studying alarms to alert the whales to a coming boat or an area they should avoid.
   But the idea needs more work, she said.
   "Their reaction was to come just beneath the surface and listen, which of course brings them into more danger."
   Ms. Murison said the fishing industry is sensitive to the right whale's plight. The two biggest causes of death for the whales are ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement.
   Ms. Murison said measures being considered for the fishing industry include glow-in-the-dark rope and gear with weak links that could be broken by a thrashing whale.
   Despite international protections since 1935, North Atlantic right whales remain one of the most endangered whale species in the world after 1,000 years of whaling brought it close to extinction in the early 20th century.

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