North Atlantic right whale entanglement, NOAA.
For the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most critically imperiled large whale species in the world, 2017 has been a terrible year – indeed, probably the worst year since commercial whaling was banned in 1937.
Beginning in April of this year, when a dead right whale was found stranded in Cape Cod Bay, the death toll has just kept rising. Two additional right whale deaths have been confirmed in the United States and an unprecedented twelve dead right whales have been confirmed in Canada. For a species with fewer than 500 individual surviving members, these mortality levels are absolutely devastating. Fifteen dead whales— three percent of their total population—is a catastrophic loss. Because not all right whale carcasses will be discovered, the true number of deaths is probably even higher.
To put this in perspective, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has previously found that the loss of even a single right whale may contribute to the extinction of the species. Even prior to this year’s horrifying spate of deaths, Defenders and its conservation allies had been extremely concerned about the lack of progress in right whale recovery. Despite decades of protection in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), leading right whale scientists recently concluded – with a 99.99 percent degree of certainty – that the species has been in decline since 2010.
The situation unfolding is so dire that, in response to this year’s unprecedented die-offs NMFS has declared the current phenomenon an unusual mortality event under the MMPA. This declaration puts much-needed pressure on government agencies by necessitating an immediate investigation into the causes of this significant die-off.
Dissecting These Die-Offs
We have known for a long time that entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes are the two largest causes of right whale mortality. Although the data and analysis are not yet complete for all the right whale carcasses recovered and necropsied, it appears as if these killers are likely responsible for this year’s overwhelming death toll. Preliminary evidence from both the U.S. and Canada shows that some of the dead right whales were hopelessly entangled in heavy fishing ropes while others showed blunt-force trauma marks consistent with being struck by a vessel.
Snared and Struck
Entanglements can drown right whales by keeping these air-breathing mammals from reaching the surface. They can also interfere with movement and feeding and create wounds when ropes cut into an entangled whale’s skin, leading to slow and painful deaths by starvation and infection. Alarmingly, new scientific studies show that fishing gear entanglements not only kill right whales outright, but also impose such an energetic cost on females, due to the burden of dragging entangled gear around, that they are bearing fewer calves. Indeed, 2017 is one of the worst years on record for baby right whales, with only five documented calves born. When you realize that some 85 percent of all known right whales have scars from entanglements in fishing gear, the tremendous risks that fisheries pose to the very survival of the right whale becomes clear.
Blue whale in the shadow of a tanker ship. Photo by CINMS/NOAA
Ship strikes are also a life-threatening risk to right whales, which migrate up and down waters off the eastern coasts of Canada and the U.S. every year, through some of the busiest commercial shipping lanes in North America. Although we think of whales as the behemoths of the sea, they are dwarfed by huge container vessels, cruise ships, and other vessel traffic, and stand little chance of survival when one of these vessels runs them over at speed. For this reason, Defenders and its conservation allies worked hard for many years to get NMFS to implement speed limits for large vessels when whales’ seasonal migrations put them into the traffic danger zones. Yet the U.S. ship strike rule doesn’t go far enough, and Canada doesn’t have any permanent speed limit rules in place.
Working for Right Whales Right Now
Defenders and its conservation allies are taking action to protect the North Atlantic right whale from further unsustainable losses. We have just sent NMFS a 60-day notice of our intent to sue under the ESA and MMPA for its management of the American lobster fishery, which continues to seriously injure or kill right whales every year through entanglements in vertical lines.
We have also just sent a detailed letter to the Canadian government, urging it to step up to the plate and protect right whales from both entanglements and ship strikes in Canadian waters.
The situation is dire, but we will do everything in our power to halt and reverse the right whale’s slide toward extinction.
Jane Davenport, Senior Staff Attorney
Jane’s work focuses on protecting marine species such as sharks, sea turtles, and marine mammals from direct and incidental take in fisheries; and on protecting freshwater aquatic species from habitat destruction and pollution from surface coal mining.
Categories: Marine Habitat, marine habitat, Marine Mammal Protection Act, North Atlantic right whale, Whales, Wildlife
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©2017 Defenders of Wildlife
These deaths were completely avoidable.
CO2 Benefits the “Rats and Cockroaches” of Marine World
Ocean acidification may be driving a cascade of changes that drains marine biodiversity
By Adam Aton, ClimateWire on July 7, 2017
Beneath the waves, swelling levels of carbon dioxide could be boosting some species to ecological dominance while dooming others.
A study published yesterday in Current Biology suggests ocean acidification is driving a cascading set of behavioral and environmental changes that drains oceans’ biodiversity. Niche species and intermediate predators suffer at the expense of a handful of aggressive species.
Sea-level rise and coral bleaching often dominate discussions about how climate change affects the ocean, but a host of more subtle—and harder to research—trends also play a role in reshaping the world’s marine ecosystems. Among the most pressing questions is how fish react to rising levels of CO2, said Tom Bigford, policy director at the American Fisheries Society.
“The hurdles for behavioral changes are far lower than the hurdles for life and death,” said Bigford, who worked with fish habitats at NOAA for more than three decades.
Now, for the first time, researchers from the University of Adelaide in South Australia have cataloged the changing ways marine species interact with each other.
For three years, they observed marine environments near undersea volcanic vents where CO2 levels are high—providing a window into the future acidity of ocean water—along with adjacent areas of normal acidity. They also conducted behavioral experiments on fish from the different zones to test their responses to food and habitat competition.
Receding kelp means less habitat for intermediate predators, with about half as many near the volcanic vents.
But the acidified conditions proved to be a boon to what the researchers called “the marine equivalent to rats and cockroaches”—small fish with low commercial or culinary value.
Snails and small crustaceans can flourish in high-CO2 conditions, providing plenty of prey for those small fish. And their high risk-taking behavior and competitive strength, coupled with the collapse of predator populations, allowed them to more than double their population.
In water with higher CO2, the dominant species were willing to adapt to riskier habitats, preferring bare surfaces instead of turf while subordinate species were nearby.
Mimicked predator attacks also showed the dominant species adopted riskier behavior in higher-acidity water, fleeing shorter distances than the fish in water with normal acidity. Subordinate species showed no change.
Rare and specialist species are the most vulnerable to climate change, even though they “contribute disproportionately to [ecosystems’] functional diversity,” the researchers wrote.
To counter that diversity loss, the researchers suggested stronger fishing protections for predators.
Scientific American is part of Springer Nature, which owns or has commercial relations with thousands of scientific publications (many of them can be found at http://www.springernature.com/us). Scientific American maintains a strict policy of editorial independence in reporting developments in science to our readers.
© 2017 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
Five oil and gas companies has asked the Trump administration to allow them to conduct offshore seismic testing which could separate young whales from their mothers or prevent dolphins from feeding. Tell officials handling this proposal that this is a bad deal for wildlife and America’s eastern seaboard.
A famous surfer has proposed on social media that France’s government should cull sharks daily to resolve the issue of an increase in shark attacks. Culling is cruel and ineffective and should not be promoted by an influential public figure. Tell this surfer that sharks belong in the ocean by signing this petition.
15,000 lives have been killed by sharks nets!
One Green Planet
Imagine you’re taking a day to relax on the beach. There’s a warm, gentle breeze rustling your voluminous, freshly-washed hair –you pretty much look like a super model. You reach for a chip and hear the crinkle of cellophane mixing with the hypnotic sounds of the surf crash against the beach. As the sun presses down on your oiled bronzing skin, you grab your water bottle feel the cool plastic, slick from perspiration, beneath your palm as you take a swig of the ice cold water. Now imagine a 37-foot sperm whale washing up dead at your feet on the beach. Back to reality . . .
A juvenile sperm whale recently washed up dead on a beach of the Davao Gulf just outside of a resort in Samal, located in the Philippines. The autopsy revealed that the whale had, “large amounts of plastic trash, fishing nets, hooks and even a piece of coco lumber in its stomach,” and experts believe the cause of death for this majestic creature was choking on plastic. Seems a little crazy that such a mammoth whale could be taken down by plastic, but this is not the first time this has happened. Of the 54 whale deaths that have been reported in the Davao Gulf, only four of them can be attributed to natural causes. That means that 50 whales have died because of human industry and pollution. This is unacceptable, but how do we stop these senseless deaths?
The Next Time You Use Disposable Plastics – Think of a Dead 37-Foot Sperm Whale
So think back to your fictional day on the beach. Did you know that 18,000 tons of shampoo bottles are thrown out every year? Or that 40 billion plastic bottles end up in landfill every year. We generate around 8.8 million tons of plastic waste annually and only 15 percent of it is recycled – the majority of it makes it back into our oceans. From there it makes it into the stomachs and throats of marine life like the young sperm whale in this picture. Plastic pollution chokes, cuts, and entangles marine life and is currently endangering 700 different species with extinction around the world. So the next time you’re fantasizing about your perfect day, cut disposable plastics out of the picture, and while you’re at it – cut them out of your real life as well. Join One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign to learn about how you can stop plastic pollution at the source. Stop daydreaming about saving the world and start doing it.
Let’s #CrushPlastic! Click the graphic below for more information.
Precious marine habitat and sea life are being threatened by a planned memorial to a warrior king off the coast of Mumbai. Sign this petition to stop the building of this memorial and protect the marine environment and sea life in the Arabian Sea.