Right whale researchers meet in Halifax to sound alarm about species decline
Published Sunday, October 22, 2017 1:13PM EDT Last Updated Monday, October 23, 2017 7:13AM EDT
HALIFAX -- Their names were Glacier, Starboard and Peanut.
The colourfully named mammals were among 15 North Atlantic right whales who died off the coast of Canada and the U.S. in recent months.
To the community of researchers, rescuers and others gathered in Halifax for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium's annual meeting, each of the 15 whales who died off the coast of Canada and the U.S. in recent months was mourned both as an individual loss as well as a dire blow to the endangered species' survival.
Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society became overwhelmed with emotion as she recalled recovering several bloated whale carcasses in Canada's eastern waters this summer.
"I'm going to take you through those animals, not only on the human side, but on the animal side, because they aren't just numbers," Tonya Wimmer told the hundreds of people gathered at St. Mary's University. "I think it's really important to see the context of who and what we were dealing with."
The spate of right whale deaths cast a shadow over Sunday's gathering, which is normally closed to the media, but was opened up due to public interest.
Presenters spoke with a renewed sense of urgency to protect the 450 right whales still alive as of 2016, according to the latest population estimate, which does not account for this year's losses.
Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium in Boston said in an interview that the death toll since spring could be higher than the official count, and combined with dwindling birth rates, the species is at risk of extinction.
"We've got to do something, because the trajectory of the decline is such that this population could be gone in two to three decades," Kraus said.
Many of the whale deaths have been attributed to vessel strikes and getting tangled in fishing gear.
The Canadian government has taken steps to reduce the risk to right whales by bringing in measures including reducing the speed limit in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and shutting down a snow crab fishery.
Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is set to meet with scientists, members of industry, Indigenous groups and other interested parties in Moncton, N.B., to discuss the right whale deaths.
"These kinds of conservation crises only get solved when you have all the stakeholders involved, and that they're all committed to finding solutions," said Kraus. "It can't be ... feel-good solutions. It has to be real effective conservation efforts."
Kraus is particularly concerned about the escalating threat of entanglements, which he said have shot through the roof in recent years, overtaking ship strikes as the leading cause of death for right whales, in addition to causing other health issues.
Many of the proposed solutions to this problem will require help from the fishing industry, Kraus said, such as switching to types of fishing gear that reduce the risk of entanglement or make it easier for a trapped whale to break free.
Kraus said mysterious shifts in right whale migration patterns, such as an increased presence in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, have left scientists scratching their heads, but luckily, right whale researchers pool their resources by sharing information -- such as name, age, gender and physical features -- in a database so they can track changes in population.
Mark Baumgartner, who works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, said the number of deaths this year is a wake-up call that the survival of the whales can't be achieved by a small group of experts, but must involve the broader public.
"Every researcher that I've talked to has described this past summer as an utter disaster. It is really quite depressing to see," he said. "One of the things that we want to have come out of this meeting is for people to have a sense of urgency ... This is a problem we think can be solved if the public wants this to be solved."
The consortium has announced plans to form an international working group to address the right whale "mortality crisis."