An Ocean Forum on the Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale

November 6 and 7, 2003


The North Atlantic Right Whale population has not recovered since whaling ceased. Today, only about 300 survive, and the species remains in danger of disappearing forever.

Living along the US East Coast, the most heavily used ocean habitat in the world, they suffer “urban whale syndrome.” They are exposed to intense shipping and fishing traffic and noise and chemical pollution. Many are killed when struck by ships or die slow deaths when they become entangled in fishing gear. Their health is threatened by toxins and diseases. Their ability to reproduce, and maintain the population, has faltered ominously.

With the fate of the North Atlantic Right Whale hanging in the balance, the Ocean Life Institute (OLI) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) convened an Ocean Forum on the Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale on Nov. 6 and 7, 2003.

The OLI invited leading experts from science, government, and industry who have worked to understand the North Atlantic Right Whale’s physiology, life history, health, and behavior, as well other critical factors that make them vulnerable. Their fields included physiology, animal behavior, genetics, molecular biology, acoustics, ecology, physical oceanography, veterinary medicine, chemistry, engineering, population dynamics, shipping, and fishing. Their broad range of expertise and perspectives complemented those of WHOI scientists.

The goals of the Ocean Forum were to assess what we know and need to know about the North Atlantic Right Whale's predicament and to devise collaborative, multi-pronged research strategies to catalyze advances in knowledge and enhance conservation efforts.

Click on the links below to read edited Ocean Forum presentations.

Welcoming Remarks
Laurence Madin, Director, Ocean Life Institute
Wick Simmons, Trustee, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Issues: An Overview
Scott Kraus, New England Aquarium
Kraus has pioneered long-term North Atlantic Right Whale research, creating a catalog of individual whales that is the cornerstone of many current studies.

Fishing Gear and Entanglement: Entanglement in fishing gear is a significant cause of right whale injury and mortality. Efforts to mitigate this problem are ongoing.

"The Current Status of Whalesafe Fishing Gear Research"
Glenn Salvador, National Marine Fisheries Service
Higgins and Salvador design and field-test fishing gear modifications aimed at reducing whale entanglement.

"Gillnet that Minimizes Negative Environmental Impact"
Norm Holy, Atlantic Gillnet Supply, New England Aquarium
Holy is a chemist who helps develop fishing gear designed to reduce or eliminate environmental impacts.

"Rope-Baleen Interactions: A Strategy to Reduce Entanglement"
Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Engineering tests examine how various types of ropes behave in whale baleen, providing insights leading to practical solutions.

Ship Collisions: Ship collision is a significant cause of North Atlantic Right Whale deaths. Mitigation efforts include rerouting ships and improving whale detection.

"Mitigating the Impact of Shipping Trauma: The Next Steps"
Bruce Russell, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
Russell is a consultant who has worked extensively with IFAW and US govern- ment officials on the issue of right whales and shipping.

"Acoustic Detection of Right Whales" (2 part/speaker talk)
Doug Gillespie, IFAW, and
Christopher Clark, Cornell University (coming soon)
Acoustic systems—towed subsurface or placed on the seafloor—offer the potential to detect whales and avert ship strikes.

"Right Whales’ Ears" (2 part/speaker talk)
Darlene Ketten, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and
Susan Parks, Cornell University
A unique collection of right whale ears offers critical understanding of the functional morphology of the whales’ primary sense organ.

"Reducing the Risk of Ship Collision"
Peter Tyack, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Experiments on acoustics and whale behavior test the efficacy of strategies.
Remarks by Pat White, CEO, Maine Lobsterman's Association

Right Whale Reproduction and Health: North Atlantic Right Whale recovery is hindered by poor reproductive success, which may be affected by food supplies, inbreeding, and toxic chemical exposure.

"Reproductive Endocrinology, Biotoxins, and Health"
Rosalind Rolland, New England Aquarium
A new method to assay whale fecal samples for hormones, parasites, and toxicology offers unique insights into right whale health.

"Pollutants, Body Condition, and Reproductive Success"
Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Southern Hemisphere right whales reproduce more successfully than those in the North Atlantic. They are also fatter and less exposed to pollutants.

"Contaminant Susceptibility Genes in North Atlantic Right Whales"
Mark Hahn, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Hahn studies molecular interactions of pollutants and marine organisms.

"What Can We Do to Ensure Healthful Habitats for Right Whales?"
Mark Baumgartner, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Studies of cetacean ecology, foraging behavior, and energetics show what whales need to survive and thrive.

Modeling: To assess proposed management strategies, a complex modeling approach is needed to integrate the various factors that impact right whale survival.

"North Atlantic Right Whale Population Dynamics"
Hal Caswell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
A 1999 study by Caswell and colleagues issued a warning that the North Atlantic Right Whale population was declining.

Summary Statements
Scott Kraus and Larry Madin