Seeing a breaching baleen whale leap its enormous body out of the water would almost certainly leave any person awestruck. Amazingly, thanks to recoveries due to science-based fisheries management, the local fish populations in New York (specifically a small fish called menhaden that whales love to eat) are growing and more leviathans are being seen in New York waters, inspiring and amazing the otherwise hard to impress denizens of the big apple.
I’m sure that was the case in late July, when onlookers in Lower New York Bay saw a whale surfacing out of the water. Quickly, they realized the whale — an unnamed 4-year old humpback calf — was in trouble, its tail “entangled in a thatch of fishing gear — rope, netting, buoys, steel cables — that seemed to be anchoring the whale to the seafloor,” according to The New York Times.
Freeing one of the largest animals on Earth from entanglement is no easy feat. It took a group of experts three days to hacksaw and cut the whale free from 4,000 pounds of gear. For those 72 hours the whale suffered from deep lacerations forming on its tail as the ropes and steel cables cut in. Like humans, whales breathe air, and the calf likely struggled to surface and breathe as the heavy gear anchored its tail about 20 feet below the water’s surface. This calf was lucky to escape, and its rescuers are optimistic that it will make a full recovery.
Entanglement and other harmful human-whale interactions like ship collisions are a growing problem that spans far beyond one humpback whale calf. A study of North Atlantic right whale deaths recorded between 2003 and 2018 in the U.S. and Canada found that nearly 90% died as a direct result of fishing gear entanglements or ship strikes where the cause of death could be determined.
In just the last three years, 30 North Atlantic right whales have been killed, 7% of the entire population, making them one of the most endangered large whales on the planet. Scientists estimate that just one human-caused right whale death a year could threaten the species chance at recovery. The entanglement that those onlookers in New York saw, it turns out, could play a leading role to the awful demise of not just one individual whale, but of an entire species.
The plight of the right whale is not a new phenomenon. Beginning in the mid-16th century, humans began hunting right whales in what are now Canadian waters. American colonists followed in the mid-17th century in the waters near Cape Cod and Long Island. In his magnum opus Moby Dick, Herman Melville described looking upon the head of a North Atlantic right whale, “how this mighty monster is actually a diademed king of the sea, whose green crown has been put together for him in this marvelous manner.” These kings of the sea followed predictable migratory routes (often close to shore), were slow swimmers, and even floated in the water after being killed (earning them the name “the right whale”), which made them a reliable target for Yankee and other whalers, until around the time of the American revolution when the right whale population began to dwindle.
Today, only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, including fewer than 100 breeding females. Although they are no longer hunted, human activity is still wreaking havoc on their population. Right whales navigate 1 million fishing lines along their migratory route and have often been spotted with ropes wrapped around their bodies and deep cuts from the gear that could lead to life-threatening infections. Because right whales are so slow, moving around 6 miles per hour near the surface of the water, commercial ships cannot maneuver around them at normal operating speeds. This puts the whales at risk of collision, trauma, and major injury from the ship’s propellers. They are the wrong whales to place in the middle of high-speed shipping lanes.
To save right whales from extinction, Oceana, in both the U.S. and Canada, launched a campaign to push policy changes that will prevent further deaths from ship strikes and entanglements. Our teams in the U.S. and Canada are pushing to reduce the amount of rope used in fixed gear fisheries and to ensure that fishing gear and practices are modified to reduce the likelihood and severity of entanglements. We are also advocating for public tracking of fishing vessels in areas where right whales are known to migrate and pushing for seasonal speed restrictions in these places to avoid more ship strikes.
I’m pleased to report that Oceana is, with the help of our allies, making progress. In response to pressure, the Government of Canada implemented a voluntary slowdown measure in the Cabot Strait, a feeding ground for right whales in the summer. Our teams knew this was not enough and used satellite data from Global Fishing Watch (an organization founded by Oceana with Google and SkyTruth) to determine that the voluntary measures are being largely ignored. As a result, Oceana Canada is now calling for mandatory speed restrictions to prevent further fatalities. Additionally, in July, Oceana launched Ship Speed Watch, a new online tool that leverages and displays relevant data from Global Fishing Watch to allow the public to monitor ship speeds and positions in areas frequented by North Atlantic right whales in near real-time.
And we are just getting started. We will seek to win changes to policy that make ship strikes and entanglements much less common. With your support, we can achieve these victories and ensure that right whales survive and that we, and the oceans, continue to benefit from the important role (and real wonder) that comes from living in a world that includes “diademed kings of the sea.”