• Dante Delorenzo and Tripp Bush

Save the Whales

Climate Change’s Effect on North Atlantic Right Whales.

“Scientists who study the endangered North Atlantic right whale estimate that the species will be doomed to extinction by 2040 if humans don’t make substantive changes to protect them.” [7] This was said at an annual meeting of experts on the species in Halifax, Nova Scotia after 16 dead whales washed up on the shores of the Gulf of Maine in the summer and fall of 2017. [7] There are many threats facing the population of right whales, including: ship strikes, fishing gear entanglements, and food shortages leading to low birth rates. [7]

The right whale’s preferred food source is Calanus finmarchicus, a cold water copepod. The whales scoop up clouds of these tiny zooplankton by using their sieve-like baleen. [7] Warming waters off the Gulf of Maine have caused this copepod to move northward into cooler Canadian water, in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. [4] With this great migration of the right whale’s food source, the whales follow north. This creates problems for the whales as they are now populating areas where they haven’t before. Since right whales are an endangered species, fishing regulations have been implemented in the whale's traditional feeding grounds. These regulations include ship speed restrictions and underwater listening devices that alert boats when whales are nearby. [4] Also, there have been mandated changes with fishing gear in the US, making it less likely for right whales to get entangled. Until recently these implementations have only been placed in the U.S. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canadian waters), there were no laws protecting the whales like in the U.S. When right whales would follow their food source into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they lacked protections afforded them in U.S. waters. [4] This put the massive, slow moving animals at high risk of being hit by a fast moving ship or entangled in fishing gear. The lengthy reproduction process for whales has an effect on their population and scientists note climate change is affecting these mammals. [4] “For the females, being pregnant and lactating is an energetically intensive process”Meyer-Gutbrod says. [4] After a female has a calf, how quickly she can replenish all her blubber lost due to the pregnancy and lactation will affect how quickly she can reproduce another calf. The right whales are not fecund, meaning they cannot reproduce offspring at a high rate. Also, if the number of copepods is down one year, that could affect the number of calves born because the females are not able to get the amount of food needed to sustain a pregnancy. These are reasons why the number of newborn calves have been down in recent years.

Background

The main issue affecting the North Atlantic right whales is the warming of the Gulf of Maine waters. The warm water is

forcing their favored food source into cooler waters to the north. Usually, cold water coming from the coast of Labrador and Greenland flows into the Gulf of Maine through the Northeast Channel,a deep passage between the Georges and Browns Banks.[6] Recently, scientists working on Canadian Coast Guard ships have been using automated buoys and have found that deep water currents are experiencing increasing temperatures, as much as 11° in some cases.[6] David Townsend, an oceanographer at the University of Maine’s School for Ocean Sciences, said that the intensity of the Gulf Stream has decreased and frequency of warm core rings off New England and Nova Scotia have increased. [6] Since this situation doesn’t involve water on the surface, it is not related to air temperature, but more so to changes to ocean currents caused by global warming. [6]

Nick Record of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine expressed concern about the change in the current and water temperatures that run into deep-water basins. These changes may affect right whales since they depend heavily on Calanus finmarchicus. [6] Record also stated that right whales have started to abandon certain areas of the Gulf, those same areas that were known to be the location of Calanus finmarchicus. [6]