by Pam Murphy
For more than 45 years Jean Rioux has advocated for the North Atlantic Right Whale and legislation to protect it. She has spent countless summers set up day and night on Main Street or Federal Street offering education, facts, and ways to help. Jean has collected thousands of signatures and shared her passion with each person signing. When COVID-19 struck the island last year, Jean was undeterred.
Having been hunted nearly to extinction by the 1890s, North Atlantic Right Whales have seen their population drop in recent years from just 400 to less than 366 with fewer than 100 breeding aged females. Many of these potential mothers are in such poor body condition from stresses such as ship noise and entanglement that they are infertile. No longer hunted, entanglements in fishing gear (more than 80% of the population has been entangled at least once) and vessel strikes are the leading cause of death today. Known as the “urban whale,” Right Whales feed in the same areas that shipping lanes transect, leading to attempts to move lanes and lower speeds when whales are present. Canada and the US both have strong movements to work with the fishing industry to do everything possible to save these majestic animals. The recent documentary Entangled highlights this difficult dilemma. With the advent of off-shore wind farms just south of Martha’s Vineyard, this already endangered species will be facing more risks than ever.
Jean spends her entire summer dedicated to making a difference here on-island. In the 60s and 70s, when whales were still being hunted ruthlessly, Jean joined campaigns like Save the Whale, Cetacean Society International, the Animal Welfare Institute, and others, but never felt she was having an impact. One day, on upper Main Street, surrounded by mansions built for whale ship owners, she realized every visitor who came here knew about Nantucket’s whaling heritage and so might be open to learning more about the contemporary issues facing whales. Armed with stalwart determination, she started the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program in 1977. She attended cetacean conferences and brought speakers to the island to raise awareness and help inform. She also relied on the old-fashioned sandwich board to spread the word, strolling the streets formerly walked by whale ship captains and their crews.
When 13 Pilot Whales stranded on Cisco Beach in a storm in December 1981, they were tragically and scandalously dragged to the landfill—still alive—Jean flew into action. She admonished the New England Aquarium, whose jurisdiction covered Nantucket under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. She put out a call for people to train and form a marine mammal stranding team. Maria Mitchell Association, New England Aquarium, and the National Marine Fisheries Service all attended and Nantucket’s first Stranding Team was born. Today the stranding team functions under NOAA/NMFS permit as Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket.
In 2000 Jean lost her indoor space for programming and took the conservation program to the streets, manning “Information Stations” and soliciting signatures for government action to save the whales. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Jean’s well-known table on Federal Street was too risky, especially at her age of 86. But that wasn’t about to deter Jean Rioux. Out came the old sandwich board concept with information, full context of the petition, and a QR code to sign online, COVID safe.
This year, Jean was nearly struck by a vehicle backing out of a parking space and was knocked off her bike. After weeks of recuperation, she is back walking around town, educating the public, raising awareness and getting signatures and donations. Nothing can deter her from fighting for these magnificent animals.
Now more than ever Right Whales need our outspoken support. A recent article in the Vineyard Gazette highlighted a study of Right Whale migratory and feeding patterns in our own backyard. “Even as their overall numbers have declined, scientists have noticed an uptick in their presence south of the island, considering it an important feeding ground, socializing habitat and through way as whales travel south to breed or north for the summer months.” This occurs right smack in the middle of the country’s first, but not last in the area, federally approved off-shore wind farm, Vineyard Wind 1. Will the noise and disturbance of 64 turbines being installed 15 miles south of the Vineyard disrupt the world of these leviathans? Tim Cole, leader of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center says continued studies are crucial. Referencing both construction and operation, he states “considerable uncertainty still exists regarding how the development of the region could have an impact on right whales just as they are becoming more reliant on the region.” Vineyard wind spokesman Andrew Dona promises to “continue to support the application of good science.” Jean, and the world, will be watching.
If you’d like to help make a difference, please go to NantucketMMAN.org to sign the petition to encourage Congress to enact legislation to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale and support our local Rescue Team. Learn more about North Atlantic Right Whales at fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale