- 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.”  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.  There are many threats facing the population of right whales, including: ship strikes, fishing gear entanglements, and food shortages leading to low birth rates. 
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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  “For the females, being pregnant and lactating is an energetically intensive process”Meyer-Gutbrod says.  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.
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. 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. 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.  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. 
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.  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. 
The right whales typically start off in the Spring around Cape Cod. They work their way up to the Gulf of Maine to the Bay of Fundy and off the Scotian Shelf during the summer to fatten up on the C. finmarchicus before returning down south (past the Carolinas) for the winter.  When scientists noticed there were fewer whales in the Gulf of Maine, they began to look into the situation, they discovered the whales had started to move further north into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Their food source was being driven further north to seek cooler water. Unlike the whale’s traditional feeding ground in the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence does not have any mandatory regulations on fishing gear, ship speed or devices used to alert ships if whales are nearby. Entanglements with fishing gear and ship strikes have been a major cause of death for the whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 
Compounding the problem for right whales is reproduction. In a study done by Masami Fujiwara and Hal Caswell, they found that the female survival rate of the right whales is going down at an alarming rate, especially for those who had previously given birth. In the early 1980’s the female survival rate was double that of males, however, that has declined over the past 52 years. Masami Fujiwara says, “A mature female could once be expected to reproduce six times, but that number is now less than two...Just saving two females a year from death can have a huge impact on this population.”  Mothers spend about a year nursing their calves in coastal waters. These coastal waters are also a popular place for fishing boats and commercial vessels. On many whales you can see scars from ship strikes and
fishing nets. This could be a cause of the female right whale survival rate decrease. On the upside there was an unexpected calf production in 2001 that gave scientists hope the population can be restored in future years.  If the new generation of calves is able to reproduce six times, that could have a substantial impact on the right whale population.
NOAA Fisheries tracks right whales and gives them nicknames. Seen in the pictures is Boomerang" (bottom right) and “Magnet” (top left). These whales are traveling south together, picture taken off the coast of Tybee Island, GA.
Since this issue is relatively new, researchers since 2010 are still concerned with the number of right whales still living. Scientists and fishermen are still trying to find solutions for this problem. Currently, it is unrealistic to think climate change will be improved with global cooperation. Thus, ocean temperatures will continue to rise.
One of the most common causes for death of right whales is fishing gear entanglement, therefore scientists are
working with fishermen to reduce the occurrence of entanglement. “85 percent of all right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives” in fishing gear; some of those whales have been entangled more than once.  Even if a whale gets free from entanglement, it may affect the birth rate for females, due to the stress caused by being entangled.  The reason for so many entanglements is due to stronger ropes used by fishermen in the past two decades.  Researchers have suggested that fishermen should start using the ropes they were using in the 1990s, ropes that were not as strong as the ones used today.  The hope is that fishermen will soon be able to use “rope-less traps that automatically deploy buoys that shoot to the surface when prompted with an acoustic trigger.”  This system stores the rope on the seafloor, when the crew is near the location of the trap on the surface, they can release the rope, and haul in the trap. This would eliminate the cause of many whale entanglements, making it much safer for the endangered right whale. Ashored Innovations, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is working on making rope-less fishing gear.  They are working closely with fisherman and taking into consideration the conditions they work in, (20 foot seas and freezing temperatures) and the thick rubber gloves the fisherman wear.  They are also trying to prevent fishermen from stacking their traps on top of other traps on the seafloor, since from the surface you cannot tell where other traps are.  Ashored Innovations believes they could design a GPS to track where each fishermen’s traps are, as well as being able to tell where other traps are.  In the summer of 2017, regulators in Canada “closed, delayed, or restricted crab fisheries … in the area where the whales are present” in order to protect the whales. 
Another cause of death for right whales is ship strikes. These massive slow moving animals are at high risk of being hit by large, fast moving ships. Since right whales are an endangered species, there are fishing regulations implemented by the U.S. in the whale's traditional feeding grounds (Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy area or off the Scotian Shelf), “including mandatory vessel speed reductions and underwater listening devices, which allow boats to receive a notification when whales are nearby.”  Canadian oceanographer Christopher Taggart of Davies and Dalhousie University is “testing a relatively low-cost approach: underwater gliders equipped with sound sensors and gear able to transmit alerts to ships via satellites and shore stations.” 
Unfortunately, the actions used to protect right whales will be of little consequence if traditional whale feeding grounds are on the move.Since right whales are starting to move into Canadian waters, the rules and regulations do not apply tothe Gulf of St. Lawrence. “Everybody is scrambling to figure out how we can put the same protections in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that are already in place in the Gulf of Maine,” Said Meyer-Gutbrod. 
Scientists and fishermen are moving in the right direction to find protection for right whales. These precautions should keep the right whales safe for the near future as long as the rules and best practices are followed. Slowing climate change is the only solution to reduce rising ocean temperatures. A more comprehensive solution will be needed for a long term fix.
This is a fairly recent issue, and it takes time for attempts to find solutions to the problem that are successful. This work is ongoing. Only time will tell if the switch to rope-less fishing gear makes the predicted, positive impact on right whale populations. With thatbeing said, some researchers and scientists do believe that it has already made an impact. “These are expensive fishing gear implementations that have actually made a big difference in the rates of anthropogenic mortalities in the Gulf of Maine”, says Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  If the whale friendly fishing gear is used all over the Gulf of Maine and Gulf of St. Lawrence, especially in areas densely populated by whales, the number of whale deaths could drastically decrease. Ship speed restrictions would also save whales from being struck by a ships. These laws need to be enforced and followed, especially in Canada where laws have yet to be implemented.
However, there is good news related to this topic. During the month of December 2018, the first baby right whale in two years was spotted off the coast of Florida. The mother and the calf were spotted along with many other pregnant right whales.  This is a great sign for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Yet, in 2018, no right whale calves were spotted in the Gulf of Maine.
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Writer, Colin Woodard Staff. “Right Whales Could Be Extinct in Less than 25 Years, Scientists Warn after Spate of Deaths.” Press Herald, 25 Oct. 2017, www.pressherald.com/2017/10/25/right-whales-could-become-extinct-in-less-than-quarter-century-scientists-warn-after-spate-of-deaths/
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I am 18 years old and from Kennebunk, Maine. I enjoy playing sports, mainly football and lacrosse, working out, and eating my mothers food. I am apart of my school’s Peer Helper group, Executive Council, and National Honors Society. I will be attending the University of New Haven in the fall. I plan to play football and study forensic science.