Gentle Giants Need Right Protection

North Atlantic right whales had the unfortunate distinction of being named by the whaling industry because they were the ‘right whale’ to hunt. They are easy to harpoon and float after death. (NOAA)

North Atlantic right whales had the unfortunate distinction of being named by the whaling industry because they were the ‘right whale’ to hunt. They are easy to harpoon and float after death. (NOAA)

Editor’s note: First story in an occasional series this summer by ecoRI News intern Abbey Greene about threatened/endangered animals living in southern New England.

By ABBEY GREENE/ecoRI News contributor

Whale, we have a problem.

In southern New England there are many threatened and endangered species that need protection. Among the animals that need to be carefully monitored each year are our giant marine neighbors, whales.

Some of the whale species on the federal endangered species list inhabit southern New England waters, such as the fin, sei, humpback and sperm.

Robert Kenney, an associate marine research scientist at the University of Rhode Island, has been studying whales for more than 40 years. He said there is one species in particular that we need to be especially worried about — the North Atlantic right whale, which is said to be the most endangered whale in the world.

“As of last fall, we have a record of only around 512 left,” Kenney said. The worst part is, he said, this is our own fault. “We did it; we killed them by whaling them up until the ’60s.”

North Atlantic right whales inhabit the waters right off Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bay, and travel up and down the East Coast to feed and give birth to their calves.

Unfortunately for the whale, this 46-foot-long behemoth was highly sought after just a few decades ago. It was wanted for its high blubber content and is easy to kill. As they feed, these whales skim the surface of the water at a maximum of about 1-2 mph, giving hunters plenty of time to take aim and shoot.

The whaling of these marine mammals is now punishable by up to a $20,000 fine and two years in jail. But whaling isn’t the only threat these creatures need to worry about.

North Atlantic right whales can become wrapped up in fishing gear, especially in lobster traps and fixed gear that rest on the ocean floor. The gear and attached ropes can strangle the whales, or weigh them down and injure them, leading to starvation.

In addition, boats and ships are known to hit sea life in their path, and a fast enough bash from a vessel can be fatal to even a whale. At least four or five North Atlantic rights whales a year are killed this way, according to Kenney, and that number is only for those strikes that are reported.

The main threats to the North Atlantic right whale, from whaling to fishing to entrapment to ship strikes, are all direct impacts from humans. Efforts have been put in place to try and combat these threats, but the whale mortality rate from year to year remains unchanged.

“It is really a trial-and-error process,” Kenney said. “We are still learning about these whales.”

The North Atlantic right whale population is kept track of annually, and every reported sighting is recorded in an online public database through the New England Aquarium.

To tell North Atlantic right whales apart, one can refer to each whale’s unique white markings that are formed during the first year of life. Kenney called the markings “whale lice.”

Tiny arthropods grip onto the whale’s body and eat the dead skin cells throughout the whale’s life. They gather in large groups, forming white patterns on the whale and creating distinct markings that vary from each individual. Every whale has its own tattoo, and this way scientists and the public have the ability to name each whale and better keep track of them.

The North Atlantic right whale is special, Kenney said, and there is still plenty to be learned about these animals. Anyone who sights one of these gentle giants can report it to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.