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The Tale of the Whale

Putting a population to the test

Over the past 1,000 years, humans have been conducting a test in population biology with the North Atlantic right whale. For the first 900 years, humans hunted the whales for oil and baleen—first Basque whalers from Spain, then Yankee whalers from New England. They gave the creature its name because it was the “right” whale to hunt: It swam slowly, near the surface, and conveniently floated when killed, making it easy to catch and retrieve.

By 1935, when commercial hunting for right whales was banned worldwide, they had been exterminated in the northeastern Atlantic, and perhaps only a few dozen remained in the northwestern Atlantic. The ban on whaling wasn’t much of a reprieve. During World War II, North Americans tried to depth-charge anything vaguely submarine-like that came within 50 miles of the coast—exactly where this species lives. Then, increased human activities in the ocean began to take their toll.

Today, about half of all North Atlantic right whale deaths are caused by accidental entanglements in fishing gear or by collisions between ships and whales. When a whale gets entangled, sometimes it drowns. More often, the ropes get embedded in the whale’s skin, killing it with secondary infections. Although fishermen rarely see right whales, more than 70 percent of right whales exhibit scars from fishing gear.

Not many whales survive collisions. Shipping channels to East Coast ports and naval bases cut across the whales’ critical calving grounds, migration corridors, and feeding areas. Jacksonville, Fla., Chesapeake Bay, and the port of New York are just a few examples, each with more than 2,000 ship arrivals and departures a year. At least two right whales have been killed by ship collisions in each of the past three years, enough to drive this small population toward extinction.

A ‘village’ of whales
Another problem for right whales is their wildly variable reproduction. In the 1980s, adult females gave birth to a calf about every three years; by the late 1990s, this interval was well over five years. The trend culminated in 2000 when just one calf was born to the entire population. Then, surprisingly, 31 calves were born in 2001—a record—although this baby boom has not been sustained. This variability is strong evidence of a problem with reproduction, and researchers are studying potential causes, including disease, declining food supplies, bio-toxins, and pollution.

Over the past several decades, researchers and volunteers have made more than 32,000 sightings and photographed and catalogued 460 individual right whales from Florida to Greenland. Of those, we believe about 342 are still alive.

This right whale catalog is an extremely valuable body of information. It allows scientists to track individual whales throughout their lives, providing data on calving, migrations, feeding patterns, associations with other whales, habitat preferences, and deaths. Imagine living in a village of 342 people for 25 years: You would probably know everyone. There are several researchers who have lived in the village of right whales for 25 years and now recognize individual whales on sight.

Pursuing a new, hopeful course
Armed with this extraordinary set of observations, advances in technology, and improved federal funding, we will soon see a tremendous burst of creative scientific energy focused on understanding and correcting what ails the right whale. Solutions will come from blending expertise in a diverse range of scientific fields, and we will capitalize on new findings on whale hearing and behavior; the ecology and oceanography of their habitats; whale genetics, hormones, toxins, and diseases; and population modeling.

A dedicated group of scientists, managers, and conservationists are trying to develop strategies aimed at helping humans and whales coexist. When we figure out how to stop killing right whales, we will be reversing the 1,000-year test. Let the experiment begin!

Originally published: November 1, 2004