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Whale researcher nets prestigious international award

BY MARTY KLINKENBERG
TELEGRAPH-JOURNAL
November 24/06

   On Tuesday, Moira Brown re ceived a lifetime achievement award for more than two de cades of protecting Northern right whales, the most endan gered whale species on Earth. On Thursday, the Canadian-born scientist was wondering how she will continue to do research with out funding.
    For years, Brown and associates from the New England Aquarium in Boston have spent the summer studying right whales as they congregate in the Bay of Fundy. She learned recently, however, that she will not receive any money from the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007 to conduct field studies to help preserve the species.
   Brown said she normally receives $150,000 from the U.S. federal agency, enough for her team to spend two months tracking the whales as they gorge themselves on plankton off New Brunswick and Maine. In 2003, her research led to shipping lanes being moved in the Bay of Fundy, " which drastically reduced collisions between tankers and the lumbering whales, which number about 350.
   "We are sort of scrambling right now, try ng to find funding elsewhere; Brown said Thursday as she drove through upstate New York en route to Thanksgiving din er at a friend's. "There is a real possibility that we will have to stay home next sum mer that we won't be in the Bay of Fundy for the first time in 27 years."
   Brown, who joined the likes of chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall and naturalist Farley Mowat in winning a lifetime award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare Canada, said her team is considerng discontinuing field research on right whales in two other regions next year in order to be able to continue limited work p the Bay of Fundy. Her team is lobbying Congress in an attempt to getting its funding restored in 2008.
   "We are looking at cutting back in a lot other areas in 2007 so that we can have continued presence in the Bay of Fundy, en if it means coming there for two weeks instead of two months; she said. "We are making it our main priority."
   Brown said she will try to make up for the shortfall by seeking financial help from foundations and corporate sponsors, including Irving Oil, which since 1998 has helped support her research. The Saint John based company was among the partners in the project that saw shipping lanes moved, which Brown sees as one of her greatest successes.
   She also is proud of launching a genetics research program for right whales, which is as tricky as it sounds.
   "The first question was how to get a skin sample from a 60-foot animal at sea," Brown said, chuckling.
   A native of Montreal, Brown spends most of her time in Massachusetts at the aquarium's research centre for North American right whales. The organization also has a satellite office in Saint John, which she visits while working in the Bay of Fundy.
   She was in Ottawa at the Chateau Laurier Hotel on Tuesday night to receive her award, which she says was a humbling experience.
   "I have a couple ofthoughts about receiving an award like this: I'm too young, I'm worried I have nowhere to go but down, and the company is incredibly impressive,. When they told me, I was blown away.
   "I read every one of Farley Mowat's books when I was growing up, and I watched every National Geographic special that Jane Goodall ever did. These people were pioneers. I definitely feel outclassed."
   In Ottawa, Brown was presented her award right after a dog was brought up onjto the stage. The golden retriever was recognized for helping rescue another dog that was being abused. "
   I told people that I was sorry I couldn't bring a whale up with me. The way I look at it, it's not really me but it is the right whale that warrants the recog tion.
   "But no matter who gets it, it's really cool. It brings attention to right whales."
   Brown began working with the Boston Aquarium in 1985 as a volunteer on its right whale project. Although she was an ornithologist and retains a passion in birds of prey, she became smitten with whales after working with them one summer, and decided to make that her principal area of interest because there were no other Ca nadians involved in the work, even though most of the research was being conducted in Canadian waters.
   Now she is one of the leading scientists in the field.
   "Despite all of the progress we have made, there is still a lot of mystery with right whales, a lot of things we we still need to find out," Brown said. "Here it is 2006, and we still don't know where their mating ground is, we still don't know where their summer nursery is, other than the Bay of Fundy, and we still don't know where their wintering ground is."
   Brown said that the New England Aquarium did an aerial survey of the Bay of Fundy on Wednesday, and still found an unusual number of right whales around Grand Manan. The whales have usually started migrating south at this time of year, and their presence here is a concern to fishery officials who fear they could become entangled inlobster gear.
   Brown said that two right whales have been found in U.S. waters in recent years trailing fishing gear from New Brunswick, one as far south as the Carolinas.
   "This is a real animal welfare issue; Brown said. "While it's uncommon for us to get a report about someone seeing a right whale or two in the Bay of Fundy at this time of year, it is unusual for there to be so many. Usually, the whales and lobster seeing don't overlap."
    Brown said she hopes to set up meetings with New Brunswick lobstermen in January or February to discuss making gear modifications that would help to protect the right whales. Fishermen in the U.S. have already modified their gear to help, she said.
   "We all understand the burden of the fishermen and we're not trying to do am thing to hurt them, she said. "But we do need to sit down and figure out what can be done to let them keep fishing and to re-duce the impact on the whales."

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