Guest post by aspiring oceanographer and conservationist, Daniel Hendy
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Species in focus: North Atlantic Right Whale
Author: Daniel Hendy @dan_hendy
The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a species of whale in the order Mysticeti (baleen whales) that grows up to 18.5 metres long and weighs up to 106,000 kg. It’s a very impressive looking whale with each individual tending to have a unique pattern of large, white growths on their heads called callosities. These callosities can be used by scientists to identify different individuals.
As its name suggests, E. glacialis is endemic to the North Atlantic Ocean and is principally found in the waters off the Eastern coast of North America. Migration occurs on an annual basis from winter calving grounds off the coast of Florida and Georgia, to spring/summer feeding grounds off the coast of New England and Canada. Previously, E. glacialis was found right across the Atlantic Ocean with a separate population living just off the coast of Western Europe and Africa. Unfortunately, only a handful of individual whales have been seen in this area in recent years and it is unknown if these individuals are from a remnant separate population or have just strayed across from North America.
According to the United States based NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), this whale is one of the most critically endangered cetaceans on the planet with a maximum population of only 450 individuals. These whales have suffered extensively from whaling over the last few centuries. Dozens of whales were being caught in the Bay of Biscay as far back as the 11th Century, and a marked decline was already observed by 1650.
Unfortunately, it remains difficult to document exactly how much of a decline this species has suffered as historical catch figures have never been accurately recorded. However, by using estimates from the ecosystem carrying capacity of North Pacific right whale populations, Monsarrat et al., (2016) has been able to estimate that the total pre-whaling population of these whales ranged from 9,000 to 21,000 individuals, indicating a total decline of between 95-98%.
Although E. glacialis is no longer hunted by commercial whalers, major threats to this species are still primarily caused by human interference. Between 2010 and 2014, 29 human-caused deaths of this species, and 17 deaths alone in 2017 were recorded in North American waters.
Specifically, vessel collisions remain a major issue and E. glacialis remains much more likely to be injured in vessel collisions than other large whales. According to Nowacek et al., (2001), most whales tend to use negative buoyancy to power their descent during feeding, and positive buoyancy when returning to the surface. In contrast, E. glacialis uses positive buoyancy to power glides during their ascent. Unlike other whales, this reduces their ability to manoeuvre during their ascent as such, impedes their diving responses to oncoming vessels.
Another major cause of mortality in these whales is entanglement in fishing gear. A study conducted by (Knowlton et al., 2012) showed that 82.9% of individual whales had been entangled at least once, and 59% of these more than once. The fact that the majority of the entire remaining population has suffered from fishing gear entanglement highlights just how severe this issue is.
In the USA, the NOAA is heavily involved in trying to reduce human-caused whale mortality. In recent years, strategies to reduce whale-vessel strikes have been implemented that include both regulatory and non-regulatory steps such as:
- Requiring vessels to slow down
- Alternative shipping routes
- Alert systems
- Increasing education
- Improving stranding response
Other strategies have been implemented to try and reduce entanglement in fishing gear. The WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) lists some of these as:
- Using certain gear types that are less harmful to whales
- Establishing areas where fishing cannot take place when whales are present
- Reducing numbers of buoy lines
- Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network
In addition, the development of projects such as an interactive mapping application that provides real-time information on North Atlantic whale sightings is an excellent way that new technologies can be used to aid work in the field of conservation.
There are signs that things are starting to improve. Since the implementation of some of these conservation strategies, the risks of fatal vessel collisions in US waters have declines by up to 90%. However, it is important to remember that solutions need to be in place for the long term. If we continue to focus our efforts on conservation of this enigmatic species, in a few years, we may start to see more positive results from these actions, and this species may be given a fighting chance to return to our waters.
About Daniel: "I've recently graduated with a BSc in Physical Geography and will be starting an MSc in Oceanography in September. During my BSc I focused on wildlife conservation and have experience undertaking field surveys and working on conservation projects in places such as Southern Africa and Europe. I have also spent time collaborating with institutions such as the National Botanic Gardens of Wales and the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens to study invasive mollusc species in the British Isles.
I'm particularly excited about starting my MSc in Oceanography as I will be able to focus my interests towards marine conservation and further down the line hope to head into biodiversity monitoring and the management and protection of marine protected areas. I am currently volunteering as a researcher for a regional marine conservation society helping to analyse and collate data from Environmental Impact Assessments.
It gives me great joy being able to involve and educate others in my work and this is something I would like to continue throughout my career.
I'm also passionate about education and believe that it should play a major role in producing successful conservation projects. I have previously spent time volunteering as a Geography Ambassador and during my BSc took on the role of Social Secretary and Events Organiser for the geography society."