5% of All Reproductively Active Female Right Whales Have Died in Three Months

18-Mar-2005 9:20 AM EST

New England Aquarium

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PHOTO AVAILABILITY: Two very clear images of the injury to the right whale's tail, available via email.

Newswise — A recreational yacht struck and nearly amputated a large section of the tail fluke of a critically endangered right whale last Thursday off the coast of Georgia. This incident occurred only one week after the death of another right whale in Virginia due to fishing gear entanglement. Since late November, five adults and two near term fetuses have died in the tiny population of 350 North Atlantic right whales.

The 43-foot yacht was traveling at 20 knots about 7 miles off Cumberland Island, Georgia, when it hit the whale. Identified as #2425, an 11 year-old female, the whale suffered a serious near amputation of part of its tail, and scientists are concerned that it may not survive. The whale's greatest hope may be for the injured portion of its tail to fall off.

A reproductive female, #2301, was found dead on Ship Shoal Island, Virginia, on March 3rd. Michael Moore, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, determined that the whale had a severe entanglement with fishing gear, a serious injury that probably killed it. Systemic infections often lead to death in entangled or ship struck whales that survive the initial collision. New England Aquarium scientists fear that this could be the fate of #2425.

This most recent death brings the total to five known dead right whales since late November 2004, an unprecedented rate of mortality. Of these, at least four were reproductive females, and two were known to be pregnant. Right whales cannot breed until they are at least ten years old, and for unknown reasons many females never bear a single calf " only 84 females in the entire population are known to be reproductively active. This means that 5% of the breeding females died in the last three months. Whale researchers emphasize that the loss of females has a cascading effect on the future of the population, particularly with proven mothers. The loss of four reproductively active females is a devastating blow for the most endangered large whale species in the world.

From March until June, female right whales and their calves will be traveling up the East Coast, as they head north from their calving grounds in the Southeast to their feeding grounds off of New England. This journey will take the right whales through some of the most crowded and dangerous waters in the Atlantic, where the risk of ship strike or fishing gear entanglement is staggering.

Commercial and recreational ship traffic is so heavy here that the Mid-Atlantic region is known as an urban or industrial ocean. Shipping lanes are so dense with traffic in some areas that they can be equated to our congested interstates. According to Scott Kraus, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, "The worst place to be is within 30 miles of the shore, and that is where the whales are. They are traveling in the most vulnerable area [to ship strikes], and the population is getting hit pretty hard."

Scientists at the New England Aquarium stress the need for vigilance and urge vessels in the Mid-Atlantic region to be aware of the right whale migratory path. The researchers recommend that vessels travel at 10 knots or less, when within 30 miles of the coast. The slower speed gives the whales time to react to approaching vessels. "It's like a squirrel trying to cross the road," says Kraus. "If you are driving down the road at 65 miles per hour, the squirrel is dead. But, if you are driving at 10 miles per hour, the squirrel has a chance." If a ship strike does occur, the vessel should report the incident immediately to the local Coast Guard.

New England Aquarium scientists are concerned for the whales, and deeply frustrated with the slow speed of the regulatory process required for their protection. According to Amy Knowlton, research scientist at the New England Aquarium, "Some valuable and potentially effective ideas have been developed. However, these ideas have yet to become regulations and languish in a bureaucratic maze within the National Marine Fisheries Service." New England Aquarium researchers believe that NMFS is moving too slowly for the right whale, and that emergency measures should be implemented as quickly as possible.

"Despite good calving years, population models suggest that there are still more whales dying than being born every year," says Kraus. This trend leads New England Aquarium researchers to suspect that the tiny population of 350 right whales is shrinking, unable to keep up with the high rate of mortality. Scientists are beginning to worry that if nothing is done soon, the North Atlantic right whale could be consigned to extinction.

"This is a crisis that cannot continue unless we as a society are willing to accept our role in the extinction of this species," says Knowlton.

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