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Winning the fight for the lives of whales

By Rob Moir

May 10 2023 · 4 min read

Illuminem Voices
Animal Welfare · Social Responsibility · Environmental Sustainability

Massachusetts officially declared April 24 as Right Whale Day to raise awareness about the endangered: North Atlantic right whales, the state’s official marine mammal.

Right whales have been coming to Cape Cod Bay in April for as long as there has been a Cape Cod Bay. These sandy, shoaly waters warm faster than deeper, dark-bottom ocean realms. In the Gulf of Maine, a sea beside the Atlantic Ocean, seawater rotates counterclockwise fastest in April, driven by river water coming off the land. Nutrient-rich waters are upwelled on the threshold of Stellwagen Bank, defining the East boundary of Massachusetts Bay and drifting on into Cape Cod Bay, where phytoplankton blooms feed zooplankton feeding right and sei whales. Forage fish, including sand lance, herring, and mackerel, eat zooplankton and are then scooped up by gaping-mouthed minke, fin, and humpback whales.

It’s time for the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to slow vessel speeds to 10 knots. Ships were slowed down from March 1st to April 30th.  There were no vessel-related right whale deaths during the spring season from 2008 until 2016.

The lives lost

On May 5th, 2016, a right whale calf was found dead off Morris Island in Chatham. It was the first right whale fatality by ship strike since speed restrictions were implemented in 2008. The 30-ft long calf weighing about 10,000 pounds was the eighth right whale born to a whale named Punctuation. Mother and calf were observed swimming together in Cape Cod Bay on April 28th.  As a result, speed restrictions were extended in the Race Point area after April 30th.

On April 13th, 2017, a juvenile female right whale was found dead off Barnstable, where speed restrictions were in effect from January 1st to May 15th. This second right whale death was the first ship strike death documented in or near a seasonal management zone since the speed rule was enacted.

This has already been a terrible year for whales, with 23 dead whales found along the East Coast since early December 2022. Most of the whales lost were humpbacks (16) and minke whales.

In February, a 20-year-old male right whale, 43 feet long, was struck and killed by a vessel off Virginia Beach. The whale had multiple vertebral fractures and separations. There was no evidence of entanglements or evidence of trauma for the whale in normal to thin nutritional conditions.

Causes of whale deaths

This tragedy for whales is linked to record-setting pandemic buying habits that have resulted in more ship traffic. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has reported a 27 percent increase in cargo volume from 2019. In addition, ships are returning to retrieve empty cargo containers that accumulated in port and contributed to last year’s supply-chain havoc.

The secondary cause of whale deaths is entanglement with lobster and crab trap lines. Developing lineless traps is not as simple as non-lobstermen think. Two years of research found that floating a trap to the surface is a lesser challenge than retrieving pots gone adrift in all types of wind, waves, and weather. More time is needed to figure this out before they can be mandated.

Diminishing food sources are the third force quelling whale populations. Phytoplankton, tiny plant-like organisms, are about 65% less productive than two decades ago. With warming seas and plenty of nutrients washing off the land, this makes no sense. These are the conditions for harmful algal blooms and episodic events of ocean dead zones.

Over the last two decades, there have been developments on the land, more impervious surfaces with more surface runoff following more extreme rainfalls. The infamous year was 2013 when surface ocean temperatures reportedly rose four degrees. This was a sweltering summer, 1.3 to 1.6 degrees above average. At 172% of average rainfall, 2013 was wet and the third wettest since 1895.

The way forward

More developments result in more suburban lawns and powerlines with more herbicides applied. We need to slow the flushing of poisons into the sea to restore phytoplankton growth. If we can retain water when it is in great abundance, there will be more water in the landscape during droughts, and more water in the ground keeps rivers flowing during the summer. Less fresh hot water stretching out across the sea’s surface will also cool the ocean throughout the summer.

To win the fight for whale lives, we must slow all boats to ten knots in the presence of whales, use lineless lobster and crab traps, reduce the amounts of pollutants and warm water discharged into the sea, and become better stewards of land, sea, and whales.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rob Moir, PhD, is Executive Director of the Ocean River Institute and Director of Global Warming Solutions IE-PAC in Cambridge Massachusetts. He is an educator, scientist, and advocate with a proven history of institutional management and climate policy success.

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