The right whale for protection?

Last year, it was ‘The Mercy’: amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth) sets out to compete in a round-the-world yacht race, with fatal consequences. The film charts his gradual decline to insanity, set against a blue-grey Atlantic backdrop. Lost-at-sea films – often, like ‘The Mercy’, based on real events – are a regular feature of the psychological/horror genre, and tap into a seam of fear that revolves around human isolation and powerlessness in the face of terrifying, little-understood forces. Fear of the sea is a very natural human emotion. And that fear extends to its residents, about which we still know very little: giant squid, Greenland sharks, blobfish and other miscellaneous gooey things are the stuff of soft-core horror.

In this sea of unsettling wildlife, cetaceans grant us a reprieve; like seeing someone we vaguely know from university at a conference party, they are a familiar enough face to stop us hiding in the corner. Whales and dolphins are a gateway drug that takes the edge off our fear, allowing us to appreciate other things out there in the blue. Unsurprisingly, then, we have a deep-seated cultural appreciation for cetaceans, and in the UK alone there are a handful of charities solely concerned with whales and dolphins. The 1986 international Whaling Commission ban on commercial whaling has huge international support, and petitions to tighten regulations on whaling nations receive huge public backing.

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) was apparently so named because it was the ‘right’ whale to hunt (disclaimer: I highly doubt this etymology, but isn’t it good?). Whether true or not, right whales were certainly hammered by the whaling industry, and the northern right whale population probably reached a nadir in the 1990s, as a combined result of long-term whaling and an increasing number of ship-strikes. Between 1990 and 2010, the population increased by approximately 2.8% per year, and recent estimates suggest a current population size of ~450 animals (including non-breeding individuals), roughly the number of blueberries in six cups, or eyelashes on your upper lids.

This month, northern right whales have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. As of the end of June, six whale carcasses have been found in and around the Gulf of St Lawrence (Canada) in the space of a month, marking a huge peak in adult mortality. Organisms can employ two strategies for dealing with life: live fast, die young; or slow and steady wins the race. If a species decides slow and steady is the route for them – think whales, elephants, people – they have relatively few offspring, but adults live to a ripe old age, and adult mortality levels are very low. If adult mortality increases, very quickly the species finds itself in deep trouble (this is called a k-selected life-history). Population modelling suggests that northern right whales can tolerate a loss of 0.9 adult individuals per year; any more, and the population starts to decline. This year has already exceeded the sustainable level by more than 570%. The loss of six whales represents >1% of the total population, and several known reproductive individuals were amongst the dead, so the real loss is probably far greater. But why the sudden increase in mortality? And what needs to be done? A recent paper analysed the causes of mortality for whales whose carcasses were found between 2003 and 2018 in the same stretch of ocean (Florida to the Gulf of St Lawrence), for which cause of death could be determined (43 cases). Overall, 88.4% of mortality was due to anthropogenic trauma, i.e. entanglement in fishing gear (22 animals), and vehicle strike (16 animals).

Ship-strikes are horrible. Propellers chop through water, and/or whales/dolphins/seals/anything that couldn’t get out of the way. Animals may die immediately, or they may not; an astonishing proportion of adult whales bear evidence of run-ins with the shipping companies. Delayed mortality is also an issue: this year, a pregnant female died when her growing calf caused old propeller wounds to split open, killing both her and the calf. Ship-strikes are upsetting, but they are also an inevitable consequence of increasing ocean traffic. Some governments have implemented regulations to reduce mortality; the US, for example, has a 10-knot speed restriction that comes into force whenever whales are spotted in a particular area. This measure is also implemented in Canada, during the right whales’ seasonal migration into Canadian waters. For whatever reason, this has been a bad year, and to the Canadian government’s credit, as soon as whale carcasses began to pile up it imposed a blanket 10-knot limit for vessels in the Gulf of St Lawrence. This measure appears to be working, but with ship-strikes the major concern is that we find only a small proportion of carcasses. What number are lost at sea, undocumented, is a known unknown.

The second major cause of anthropogenic mortality is entanglement in fishing gear. Some of this gear is in use, and some are ‘ghost nets’, i.e. lost fishing gear that continues to trap wildlife. In Canada, certain fishing industries are regulated to reduce whale entanglements: snow crab fishing, for example, cannot be carried out within the area where whales spend 90% of their time. But these regulations are only as good as the information available to fisheries scientists, and with rapidly changing climate and shipping patterns, migratory pathways are likely to change year-on-year. NOAA’s best practice guidelines suggest that fishing gear should be readily identifiable, so owners can bear responsibility for their nets. But why not go further? Pets are microchipped, so they can be reunited with their owners if ever they get lost. Similar approaches could return lost gear to fishing fleets, with a hefty fine attached. Other research indicates that fishing gear could be made much safer for large-bodied whales by reducing the break-strength of the ropes. Between 1994 and 2010, fatal entanglements of large whales almost all involved ropes with unnecessarily high break-strengths. Limiting the sturdiness of ropes (<7.56kN) could reduce serious entanglements by at least 72%.

Maybe this year has been a bad one for North Atlantic right whales, or maybe this year we found the bodies. We know very little about the sea and its wildlife, and what we do know is often complicated: sharks around Australia, for example, are well-researched (because they occasionally eat people), but inspire conflicted emotions (because they occasionally eat people). Whales don’t do this. Whales are familiar and safe and reassuring, and we know reasonably large amounts about them. But we simply do not know how many whale carcasses are buried at sea without the appropriate paperwork; entanglements and ship-strikes are definitely, inevitably underestimated. The question is: by how much?

With few records, it is hard to crack down on a problem. This year, presented with actual, definite figures, Canada has done so. But these regulations only scratch the surface: lower speed limits, stricter geographical zoning (on shipping routes and fishing industries), greater accountability for nets, and less lethal fishing gear are all needed. Because, in reality, no one doubts that the shipping and fishing industries are killing marine mammals. Yet somehow, they are given a free pass, perhaps because we’d rather not think about the problem. The sea is large and terrifying, and its environmental problems often seem unfixable. And yet, for all our fear and trepidation surrounding the sea, it also captures the human imagination. Every year, the sea kills highly competent professionals, yet the rest of us still go out and do stupid things, and yacht, and surf, and dive and generally sail close to the wind. Because we love to be scared by the sea. And then we put it out of our minds for another year. Slowly we are becoming more aware, and willing to square up to marine environmental problems. But North Atlantic right whales – indeed all large-bodied whales – need better-regulated marine industries tomorrow. Canada is making the right steps, but this effort needs to be sustained. And that is up to the public, to pause our lost-at-sea psychological/horror/thriller, and force governments to implement (and enforce) more stringent regulations to protect our favourite unthreatening marine creatures. Because without friendly giants lurking in the deep, the sea becomes a simultaneously more terrifying and less exciting place.


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