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Volume 38 Issue 10 • July 3 - 9, 2008
now in our 38th season

Rescue of a Species on the Brink of Extinction

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a baleen whale which may reach a length of 50 feet and may weigh up to 70 tons (140,000 pounds). They can live for sixty years and females bear one calf every 3-4 years after they have reached sexual maturity (between seven and ten years of age). At one time, these gentle giants teemed along the Western Atlantic coastline, but a confluence of factors led to a precipitous reduction in their population to a genetically dangerous level of 350 individuals. The right whale was established as the most endangered marine mammal in 2008.

Right Whales were given that name because they were the “right” whale to hunt. Right whales move slowly, remain fairly close to the surface, do not sink after being killed, and yield a lot of oil. The capture of these animals could be accomplished using small boats launched from the beach, and their natural buoyancy after death meant the carcasses could be easily towed back to shore for processing. Eventually, sperm whales were identified as floating gold mines, and many whaling captains took to the seas on long voyages to concentrate on this more lucrative species, but the easy pickings meant the right whales, when spotted, were hunted. Like other baleen whales, right whales have two blowholes causing a v-shaped spouting pattern.

North Atlantic Right whales frequent coastal waters from the Canadian Maritimes to Cape Cod during summer. They migrate to their calving grounds farther south in the winter. In 1994, NMFS designated three areas as critical habitat for right whales: Coastal Florida and Georgia (Sebastian Inlet, FL to the Altamaha River, GA); the Great South Channel (east of Cape Cod), and Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay.  The migratory corridor and calving grounds intersect busy shipping lanes. Unfortunately, right whales have no natural aversion to ships and do not swim away when a vessel approaches. In addition, they feed by skimming tiny plankton from the shallow coastal water in the same manner as other baleen whales. Each year, these whales especially favor a route that takes them to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston Harbor. This area bisects official shipping lanes used by some 1,500 container ships, tankers, cruise liners, and fishing boats every year. With a slow moving whale approaching a larger and faster moving vessel, it’s a dangerous game of chicken that the right whale often loses. Collisions with ships are currently the leading cause of death with entanglement in commercial fishing gear a close second.

Once, while conducting trace metal water chemistry research from a small boat in Boston Harbor, my colleagues and I were overtaken by an early morning summer fog bank. We throttled down to approximately 5-6 knots, and kept a close eye for sailboats and whales. When we came with 20 feet of crossing paths with a sailboat, we decided to really slow down and basically just hold position until the air warmed up past the dew point and the fog lifted. Approximately 25 feet to our starboard, we saw the unmistakable sight of a right whale with its rotund black dorsal side (no dorsal fin) and head dotted with distinctive callosities (roughened patches of skin infested with white whale lice colonies) on their heads. The right whale reminded me of a ghost pirate ship as it quietly and mysteriously swam past us.  I quickly realized how easy these fatal encounters could occur with much larger vessels.

Right whales have been protected since 1935. In the United States, both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act specify that these animals must be protected.  Recently, a new version of a law designed to protect right whales has been introduced in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This proposed law has many ferry owners worried in the Hyannis and Nantucket area. More about that concern later.

Within the past year, a “smart buoy” system was installed along the shipping lanes in and out of Boston’s busy port. The buoys recognize whales' distinctive calls and route the information to a public web site and a marine warning system, giving ships the chance to avoid deadly collisions. This system was mandated during the permitting process for the construction of a new liquefied natural gas terminal last year by Northeast Gateway Deepwater Port in Massachusetts Bay, offshore of Boston. NOAA officials mandated that the company take measures to avoid collisions between right whales and the terminal's 90,000-ton supply tankers. The 10-buoy Right Whale Listening Network ( was developed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and is overseen by Dr. Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Lab of Ornithology.

Each "auto-detection" buoy recognizes the right whale's call, automatically rings up recorders at the lab and uploads the sound. Analysts verify the call and then feed the signals to the listening network's Web site and to the Northeast U.S. Right Whale Sighting Advisory System, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The network of buoys is strategically placed between inbound and outbound shipping lanes, and each buoy listens in a 5-mile radius, providing information on where collision risks are highest. Alerts remain in effect around a buoy for 24 hours after a call is detected in order to protect the whales when they are silent. Liquefied natural gas tankers must now slow to 10 knots in response to buoy alerts and post lookouts for whales and sea turtles. Even a reduction in whale deaths of 3-5 animals per year can help slow the loss of breeding females. When deaths exceed births, a biological population decreases. By insuring more of these fertile females remain alive, the genetic diversity and breeding pool can slowly recover.

Now back to the current controversy. According to an April 24, 2008 press release from Senator John Kerry’s office, the Commerce Committee passed legislation that he introduced with Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to protect right whales from ship strikes. Kerry’s “Ship Strike Reduction Act of 2008” requires the Secretary of Commerce to finalize a rule establishing speed limits for specified vessels in migratory paths of North Atlantic right whales. The federal rule enforcing the speed limits, known as “the Ship Strike Rule,” has been in the works since 2004. It was sent to the Office of Management and Budget for final sign-off in 2007, and since then has been caught up in Bush Administration politics. Where this legislation has run into difficulties is in the establishment of the zones in which the speed limit will be enforced and the speed limit proposed. Under draft rules attached to the legislation, any sighting of a right whale would trigger the imposition of a strict, 10-knot speed limit on ships more than 65 feet long, operating within a so-called “dynamic management area,” or DMA, with a 36-mile radius, for 15 days from the time of the sighting. Area ferry lines are concerned because a strict interpretation of the DMA could result in cancellations of the high speed ferries and significant reductions in the slow ferry trips if the DMA intersects their routes. Hopefully further tweaking as this legislation passes through the Senate and the House will still allow for the protection of the right whale with minimal disruption of these services. If sightings a significant distance from the routes or in areas separated by land masses such as Nantucket are not included, both goals should be met. It is important to note that the restrictions on large vessels in the Boston Port corridor framed by the smart buoys already include 10-knot speed limits. Information on reductions in whale-ship strikes from use of the smart buoy system should help us understand what precautions work in protecting the right whale’s dwindling population. This system and other new regulations are being enacted in the nick of time. The species was hunted to the brink of extinction centuries ago, and now fewer than 350 of the 50-ton black giants remain. Unfortunately, the normal migration and feeding pattern of the right whale in addition to its slow cruising speed and surface swimming behavior have led to a literal collision of man versus nature that, if not reduced, could spell the end of this species.

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