Preservation Scientists, industry work to lessen risks to endangered mammal


A right whale is seen on the Bay of Fundy from a research boat. Right whales can dive 200 meters deep, often emerging at the surface with mud from the bottom on their heads from looking for food.Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal

Population rebounding by about 2% each year

SEPT 29/13

   ON THE BAY OF FUNDY - Moira Brown stands at the bow of the boat, her eyes hidden behind a pair of army-green binoculars as she scans the waters ahead for one of the world's most endangered and elusive whales.    
The senior scientist from the Boston-based New England Aquarium braces against a steel railing as the nine-metre vessel cuts through white-capped waves. The morning sky is grey with winds up to 15 knots predicted for the afternoon.    
Brown and her team press on in search of the North Atlantic right whale, a species with an estimated population of 500.    
Once on the verge of extinction, the right whale count now inches up about two per cent every year, partly because of an unlikely collaboration between the scientists and Irving Oil. A decade ago, the parties were instrumental in a decision to reroute shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy, moving vessels away from the right whale feeding grounds and reducing the risk of a collision.    
"It's far more positive than it was when we started this," says Brown. "(In 1998), the population was on a decrease of about two and a half per cent per year."    
But that success tells only part of the story.    
The next step, scientists say, is to deal with the increasing number of fishing gear entanglements threatening the Bay of Fundy's most at risk whale.    
"There have been legislated efforts to reduce the entanglement risk in U.S. waters, but not in Canadian waters;' Brown says.   
The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is studying the entanglement problem and is developing an action plan for right whales in an effort to mitigate the risk. Scientists with the department are working with fishermen's associations to come up with solutions.    
"Instead of legislation, we're looking at collaborative and voluntary procedures (with fishermen)," says Cathy Merriman, a species at-risk biologist with DFO.    
Eighty-two per cent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from fishing gear, New England Aquarium researcher Amy Knowlton reported in a new study. And that percentage is on the rise. Scientists are developing a plan to work more closely with fishermen in an effort to find ways to mitigate the danger their gear poses to the whales.   
But, the problem is complicated with no easy solutions, Brown says.    
"We've seen some of these animals dead on the beach with (fishing) lines embedded four inches into their bones," she says.

'It's far more positive than it was when we started this,' says Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the New England Aquarium. '(In 1998), the population was on a decrease of about two and a half per cent per year.' Photo: Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal

Marianna Hagbloom, left and Amy Knowlton, research scientists from the Nw England Aquarium, get photographs used for identy records of the right whales in the Bay Photo:Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal.

Research scientists Scott Kraus and Amy Knowlton discuss the goals for the day as they head out on the Bay of Fundy in search of right whales. Photo:Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal.


   Scientist Scott Kraus is at the boat's helm when the radio crackles and a woman's voice comes through indicating there's a right whale up ahead.    
It's 1 p.m. and it's been more than two hours since the boat launched from Lubec, Maine with a team of three scientists and a researcher from the aquarium, two Irving Oil employees, as well as a reporter and photographer from the TelegraphJournal aboard.    
The scientists have been tracking the large mammal for about 30 years in the Bay of Fundy, where the whales live from roughly June to November.   
The news coming through on the radio is the first sign on this September day that the team may get a glimpse of the whale.   
The woman, Sarah McDonald, is a captain on a whale watching boat out of Grand Marian, a company called Whalesn-Sails Adventures. She tells the scientists the location of the whale.    
"There it is. It's a right whale," she says over the radio.    
Kraus steers the boat in the direction of the sighting. Soon afterward, the black, shiny back of a whale emerges out of the water 40 metres off the port side. The tour boat is 100 metres away, laden with whale watchers.    
"There are two whales," says Kraus, vicepresident of research for the New EnglandAquarium.    
Knowlton, who's sitting next to Kraus, quickly identifies one.   
"It's an adult male called Meridian," she says. "He's called that because he has a scar on his head from a (fishing gear) entanglement. ... This guy is a new whale this season. We haven't seen him vet."    
At the bow, Brown photographs the whale as twin blowholes spray its signature v-shaped blow into the air.    
The sceintists identify individual whales by photographing and cataloguing markings on their head and tail. The database, which tracks the movements of right whales, goes back 30 years.    
Meridian's tail comes out of the water. He's fluking, indicating he's about to dive deep and stay underwater for as long as 15 minutes

A trio of humpback whales break the surface in unison on the Bay of Fundy. Humpbacks are well known on the bay for their spectacular breaching and flipper flapping. :Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal.

Right whales can plunge 200 metres underwater. They often emerge at the surface with mud from the bottom on their heads from looking for food. They only eat plankton, organisms the size of a grain of rice. They consume enough of it to equal 1,700 hamburgers per day.    
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest species of whales at about 60 tons and 17-metres long. They're born off the Florida coast weighing one ton and can live up to 75 years. The animals spend the warmer months in the Bay of Fundy and are believed to mate in the Gulf of Maine.    
Hunted nearly to extinction during the 1800s, it got its name from being known as the "right whale" to hunt because it floated to the surface when killed. It has been protected since the 1930s.    
Kraus says there's a lot of work left to be done to get the whale off the endangered list. He's been doing research for 15 years on the entanglement problem.    
"We're just beginning to get a handle on things that might work, but nobody really knows," he says.    
Kraus estimates that at least a couple of right whales die each year from entanglements.    
"Initially, I thought big whale, small trap, not a problem, but we are seeing now increased mortality from fishing gear and it's hard to know what to do about it," he says. "That's the big challenge right now."    
In the United States, the federal agency responsible for governing fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service, requires all lobster fishermen put all lines between the traps on the ocean floor.    
"If you put them on the ocean floor, the whales can't get tangled up;" Kraus says. "So there have been some changes in the States and it probably reduces entanglement risk a certain amount, but basically we don't have a good solution yet." Brown says the thing to do is to connect with fishermen and fishing gear experts in Canada to lessen the impact of the problem here.   
"We want their input about how the whales become entangled ... and get them thinking about it so they can think about how gear can be modified so they can still fish and reduce the entanglement ris," 'she says.   
In the 1990s, the veteran scientist began working on ways to abate the impact of ships strikes, a major risk to the species.   
She was first alerted to the problem in the Bay of Fundy in 1992 when she got a call about a dead right whale near White Head Island. After a necropsy, scientists found a bruise on the animal so large that it could only have been caused by a shin. The skeleton of the whale, who was named Deliiah, is now on display at the New Brunswick Museum.    
After Delilah died, Brown and Knowleton travelled to Saint John to speak with Fundy Traffic, which tracks ships coming into the harbour. They explained there was a need to let mariners know there were right whales in the bay and that they were susceptible to ship strikes. "The officer in charge at that time was a fellow named Clarence Miller and he said, `well one thing we can do is tell all the ships that there are right whales in this area' and that's what they started doing in 1993," recalls Brown.   
Around that time, she helped draft a pamphlet for mariners about the whale. Despite these efforts, there was a dead right whale found in the bay in 1995; another in 1997.    
Soon afterward, Irving Oil, as the main user of the Bay of Fundy shipping lanes, contacted the New England Aquarium. They began working together to find a way to decrease the number of whale strikes. Each year, as many as 1,000 ships associated with Irving Oil travel the Bay of Fundy.    
John Logan, Irving Oil's manager of project management and controls, says it's impractical for ships that measure up to 300-metres long to steer around whales, to detect them underwater or to stop to avoid collisions. It can take up to two nautical miles for a ship to come to a halt.    
Still, the company wanted to get involved to do something.    
"It came to our attention that there were right whales and that there were in trouble as far as surviving," he says.    
The efforts of Irving Oil and the New England Aquarium scientists eventually led to the international Maritime Organization, based in London, England, to change the location of the shipping lanes in 2002.    
The new lanes are each two nautical miles wide with a two-mile separation zone in between to ensure there are no ship collisions. There's also a new turnout for vessels leaving the shipping lanes to go to Bayside, N.B. and Eastport, Maine to steer mariners away from the Grand Marian Basin, the deepest part of the bay where whales congregate to feed on plankton.    
Since the lanes were shifted in 2003, there have been no known ship strikes of whales in the Bay of Fundy.    
The ongoing collaboration between the New England Aquarium scientists and Irving oil was also instrumental in the creation of two critical habitat areas for right whales: one around the Grand Manan Basin, which the shipping lanes go around, and another called the Roseway Basin, located off the southern tip of Nova Scotia and where ships are recommended to avoid seasonally.    
Brown is hoping to use the past success of the scientists' co-operation with Irving Oil to develop closer relationships with fishermen's associations to find a solution to the entanglement issue.    
"I'll be working on this problem for the rest of my career," she says.

A Humpback whale breaches the water near a research vessel on the Bay of Funday much to the delight of passengers on a nearby whale-watching tour boat. :Cindy Wilson/Telegraph-Journal.