North Atlantic Right Whales face extinction, but hope remains eternal

North Atlantic Right Whales face extinction, but hope remains eternal Right Whale

In the Bay of Fundy, halfway between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, 50 spectators aboard a sailboat peer silently into the distance. The noises of nature reverberate: the flap of eagle wings and the splash of porpoises cutting through the still water.

But one distinctive groan echoed throughout the bay sounding like a cry for help from the most endangered whale in the world, the North Atlantic right whale, of which only 350 are believed to still exist.

“Actually, that’s a mother calling for her calf,” explained Laurie Murison, the naturalist on board, and a right whale observer in this area since 1982. “They probably separated while feeding.”

Moments later, metres from the boat, a V-shaped mist explodes from the water as the baby right whale surfaces. It swims toward its mother and the two disappear. The last fleeting image is that of the mother’s damaged fluke dipping into the water.

Her name is Slash, a nickname earned following an encounter with a boat propeller. She is one of the survivors. For 20 years, she has migrated up the Atlantic coast in summer to mate and to feed in the Bay of Fundy and she has mothered five known calves.

Her species, though, has not been as fortunate.

In the span of one hour, about 20 other North Atlantic right whales were spotted in the bay — about seven per cent of all those on earth.

It’s not hard to imagine why Ms. Murison has developed such a dreary outlook.

“You want to hope they are going to survive, but are they going to survive with what is going on in the ocean right now? We don’t know,” she said. “How can you be optimistic when everything is being destroyed?”


It’s been a rough millennium for the world’s largest creatures.

Like other species of whales, the North Atlantic right whales were nearly hunted off the face of the planet. Despite being protected for nearly 70 years, they have yet to begin recovering from exploitation.

Today, the biggest threats are fishing gear and ship strikes, but the whales also face threats of intensive ocean noise, disturbance of critical habitats and disruption of marine ecosystems and food resources.

Since February 2004, there have been eight confirmed deaths. Five were of mature females, three of which were pregnant with near-term calves.

“The ones that have been getting struck are the core of the population — the reproductive females. They are the ones we are least able to lose for the population to recover. And for it to recover, we’ve got to stop killing them. It’s as simple as that,” said Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, the pre-eminent right whale researcher in the world.

As much as one third of right whale mortality is caused by human activities, according to researchers. In July, the journal Science published an article in which researchers estimated that deaths of North Atlantic right whales may be underreported by as much as 83 per cent annually. With a population this small, each death brings the North Atlantic right whale dangerously closer to extinction.

“I think one could argue that no group of animals have been so ruthlessly hunted by man in history, in that you are not just talking about one species, you are talking about nearly every species,” said Vassili Papastavrou, Whale Team Leader for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, known as IFAW.

Yet, no species has suffered as mightily as the North Atlantic right whale, whose history is most directly linked to the 1,000 year-long history of whaling.

They were the first species to be commercially hunted, dating back to the genesis of the industry in the 11th century when the Basques started hunting and trading their products. The Basques were followed first by the Dutch and the British, and later by the Americans, Norwegians and many other nations.

The giant beasts even owe their modern name to their infamous history: “right” referring to the fact that the whales were considered the “right” ones to hunt, since they were slow swimmers, stayed close to land and their bodies tended to float to the surface when killed.

Their blubber was used to make soap, candles and especially as a source for fuel. Due to its flexibility, baleen (historically called whalebone) had many uses, including fishing rods, bows, umbrella supports and even as stays in corsets.

By the 17th century, they were almost completely wiped out, yet managed to survive in small numbers until they became protected internationally in 1937. (See “A brief history of whaling” on following page.)

The days when the right whale’s blood, guts and blubber were casually spilled are now long gone, yet it has continued to struggle at the hands of man. Despite higher public awareness and more concern than ever before, human activities have caused several species of whales to face grave danger, with the right whale leading the way on the road to extinction.

“We do suffer from a perception that the whale has been saved,” said Mr. Papastavrou, “in fact, it is much more complicated than that.”


As the sun rises on Grand Manan Island, the only ripple in the otherwise still waters inside Burton Small’s herring weir below the light tower comes from a pair of seals whose heads pop up and down periodically. With no fish in sight, the seals easily dip out of the trap and move on.

About two dozen such weirs surround the coasts of this island of 2,800, which relies almost exclusively on its fishing industry. Had Mr. Small been there to witness the seals entering his weir, the 77-year-old fisherman said he would have shot at them without hesitation.

Unlike the agile seals, several marine mammals, most often harbour porpoises, have often followed herring into the weir and ultimately encountered a similar fate.

To combat this phenomenon, IFAW funded the Harbour Porpoise Release Team, a project initiated in 1991 by the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station to assist local weir fishermen with the safe release of harbour porpoises from their herring weirs.

Each morning the team does a series of weir checks, reporting its findings to the fishermen and then working together to release any porpoises stuck inside.

At first, Mr. Small said he wanted nothing to do with the program, but he had a change of heart a few years ago when he saw a baby porpoise trapped in his weir.

“I think that’s when it struck home, with the porpoise. He was just a little fella’ and from then on, I’ve joined the project,” he said. “There was no way I could have shot it. It’s like going to war, you would shoot a man, but you wouldn’t shoot a baby.”

Small victories such as these are what have prompted IFAW to invest in several similar projects on Canada’s eastern coasts.

In late August, IFAW’s newly christened flagship state-of-the-art research and education vessel, the Song of the Whale, made its debut in Canadian waters in the Bay of Fundy. (See “Cutting Edge Technology,” this page.) In addition to conducting a right whale survey, the main focus of its visit was to highlight the two IFAW-supported projects in the Bay of Fundy: The Harbour Porpoise Release Program and the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.

Each has been successful by recruiting the local community to take interest in its marine mammals and help save those in danger, particularly the North Atlantic right whale.

Everyone knows the dangers: entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes. Nearly three quarters of the remaining right whales show scarring or other signs of injury from fishing gear, which can become entangled in the baleen plates, and around the flippers, tailstock and flukes. Entanglements can lead to long term, chronic injury, prevent right whales from feeding and swimming normally, and may lead to infection and a slow, agonizing death.

Right whales are slow moving, even clumsy, and tend to hang around the surface while feeding, making them especially susceptible to strikes from large vessels and freighters. According to scientists, collisions account for almost half of all serious injuries to right whales.

The science is there, the question is: What can be done?

“The numbers speak for themselves. We are just losing too many right whales and we need to stop losing them,” said Ms. Brown, a Montreal native.

To that purpose IFAW has been active in political lobbying in the United States and Canada to influence protective legislation for the North Atlantic right whale.

In July 2003, following 14 years of research by Ms. Brown’s team, the shipping routes in the Bay of Fundy were altered to avoid areas most frequented by the whales. Prior to that, the U.S. government implemented a system requiring commercial ships of more than 300 tons to report to the Coast Guard when they entered key right whale habitats.

In February 2004, the U.S. Congress approved a $660,000 appropriation to help fund IFAW’s whale-friendly gear replacement program. Around 330 Massachusetts lobstermen have participated in the program, which aims to replace hazardous floating lobster lines with sinking ones.

It’s these types of programs IFAW has been strongly promoting based on the belief that human behaviour has brought the right whales to their current precarious position and thus human interaction may well bring their salvation as well.

In Terris “Mackie” Green, IFAW has found a partner. He heads the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, a group of three fishermen from Campobello Island, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, who disentangle whales from fishing gear. The group has saved several right whales in recent years.

A lifelong fisherman, Mr. Green started a whale watching business in 1995. After seeing first-hand the difficulties the right whales faced, he decided to do something about it.

“There is nothing like the feeling you get when you are done, when you have a successful disentanglement,” he said. “I guess you kind of feel you are giving something back. You are making a living off the whales, so it’s good to give something back.”

He believed most fisherman shared his feelings.

“All fishermen try to pretend they are rough and tough, but they are all softies inside. No one wants to see anything get hurt,” he said.


In order for IFAW to engage the local fisherman in conservation, it has had to reinvent its image.

The organization was established in 1969 for one reason, and for one reason only — to bring an end to Canada’s commercial seal hunt. This goal is even expressed in the organization’s logo, a seal hugged by a pair of hands. In Newfoundland, IFAW is so reviled the mere mention of the acronym draws ire from fisherman and sealers, who accuse the organization of trying to steal their livelihood.

But in New Brunswick, animal welfare advocates walk around freely with shirts bearing the IFAW insignia. Here they are allies, not enemies.

“We’ve evolved as an organization,” said Kim Elmslie, a campaigner for IFAW and the project manager for the Song of the Whale visit.

The organization now has offices in 15 countries around the world, working on a variety of animal welfare projects that transcend its aggressive campaign against the seal hunt.

“We work on a broad range of issues and work for solutions that help both animals and people,” said Ms. Elmslie.

For many in Canada, though, the seal stigma has stuck.

When asked what came to mind when he saw the IFAW logo, Mr. Small said: “I think of Greenpeace. People trying to tell fishermen what to do.”

He called Greenpeace the enemy. “If Greenpeace showed up here, the people of Grand Manan would tell them ‘get the hell out of here.’ We don’t need them here,” he said.

Yet with IFAW, he co-operated. “As long as they don’t come in here and tell us what to do,” he added.

And don’t even get him started on the seal hunt.

“Seal was put on this earth for a reason, the same as the Cod fish, as the pollock, the haddock and the herring. They were put for people to eat,” he said.

The local research station has served as a natural buffer between the fishermen and the outside animal advocates, of whom fishermen remain naturally skeptical.

Mr. Small said he has developed a good trusting relationship with his animal welfare partners, but to a degree.

“We take those people with a grain of salt,” he said. “They know exactly what they can do here, the limits. Until they cross that boundary everything is fine and dandy.”

It’s a delicate balance Ms. Elmslie said IFAW understood. The organization has chosen to overlook its many differences with the fishermen in order to work together on the things they can agree upon.

“That’s the way it is with people. With every person that you meet you will find some commonality. Regardless of how many differences you have there will be a bridge that you can make,” she said. “It is finding the common ground on these issues.”

With Mr. Small the common ground is his concern for porpoises. With Mr. Green, it’s the whales.

He, too, disagrees with IFAW on the seal hunt, but feels a deep sense of responsibility toward the North Atlantic right whale.

“We never talk about seals, We just talk about whales,” he said. The secret, he added, was to “work with us, not against us. You can’t come in here with an iron fist.” He said IFAW has done a good job of avoiding such a conflict. On Campobello Island, he said, IFAW is not perceived as a threat as it is in Newfoundland.

While some of the other fishermen on the island have teased him, calling him a “tree-hugger” and “whale-hugger,” most have been very supportive of Mr. Green’s work. Being one of them, has helped as well, with IFAW taking a low-key role in providing the funding for his volunteer work. Mr. Green said the modern-day fishermen was more open to initiatives such as his because they were a lot more environmentally conscious than their predecessors, learning from the mistakes of the past.

“They know all about endangered species, because a lot of the stuff that they have been fishing for is just gone,” he said. “You can’t just go wiping species off the planet.”

Besides, he said, fishermen supported him because entangled whales ruined their fishing gear. “We’re doing it not only to save the whale, but to save the fisherman, too,” he said.


Cruising steadily along the waters separating the United States and Canada, a smorgasbord of marine activity is revealed in the Bay of Fundy: finbacks, minkes, porpoises and sharks. Song of the Whale shuts down its engine at the sight of each, so not to disturb the animals in their environment.

Yet, the sophisticated computer monitors on board show nothing — there are no right whales here today. Crew members called emergency programs such as Mr. Green’s a “band aid.” Song of the Whale aims to address the problem at its source, and based on its research there is hope for the right whale.

“You’ve got to look to the future and try to stop it, and try to encourage other people to stop it too,” said Anna Moscrop, team manager and research director on Song of the Whale. “I think we have to have hope, because it would be a pretty dire situation to see the first large whale go extinct in North America.”

Ms. Brown, a right whale researcher for more than 20 years, also sees room for optimism. The 28 confirmed right whale births this past year were the second highest number of births on record since 1980. However, this positive development was almost entirely offset by the eight recent casualties. With a long pregnancy, late sexual maturity, low reproduction rate and high mortality rate in infancy, Ms. Brown said the right whales are at a state where every single one of them counts.

“That means the ones that are born, we need to do our best to keep them alive so they can mature and have calves of their own,” she said. “It’s one whale at a time. It’s a slow process. It’s a process that needs to go on for decades, it’s not even going to be solved in my lifetime, probably. If we can instil conservation measures that will last longer than our lifetime then we are giving these animals a chance.”

Research has indicated that the right whale’s population could finally begin to grow if two female deaths were prevented each year.

The precedent exists. It’s closest species, the South Atlantic right whale, has recovered from a similar past to a population estimated to be currently more than 10,000 animals. Researchers believe if the threats of ship strikes and entanglement are eliminated, the North Atlantic right whale could well do the same.

“The fact that they have persisted despite what has been thrown at them demonstrates that if we give them a little bit of a chance they will probably rebound,” said Ms. Brown. “If we give them a shot, I am optimistic that this animal can recover. But they just need a chance.”