2006 closes with six known right whale deaths, including four by ship strike

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Close up of a right whale found dead off the Georgia coast

Checking a right whale found dead off the Georgia coast

Top view of a right whale found dead off the Georgia coast

Measuring a right whale found dead off the Georgia coast

Head photo of a right whale found dead off the Georgia coast

Boston, MA - January 2, 2007
With the clock ticking down on the close of 2006, whale biologists are concerned that the extinction clock might be ticking down on the North Atlantic right whale as a species.

On Saturday, December 30, an aerial survey team in waters off of Brunswick, Georgia discovered a floating two-year old male right whale that had been killed by a ship strike. 2006 proved to be an exceptionally bad year for what might be the world’s most endangered large whale as six of these giant creatures that migrate up and down the East Coast were found dead. Five of the deaths were the direct result of human caused interactions including four deaths due to ship strikes and one from a fishing gear entanglement.

The dead juvenile whale was first spotted floating belly up at 10:30 a.m. Saturday by an aerial survey team with the Wildlife Trust about 10-12miles east of Brunswick, Georgia. Later on Saturday and overnight, the carcass was towed to Fort Clinch State Park on Amelia Island in Florida. On Sunday, a multi-organizational team led by Dr. Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts performed a necropsy on the whale. The animal had twenty large propeller cuts along the right side of its head going down its back. This is the signature injury of a ship strike, and further examination indicated that the massive, deep lacerations did not occur after the death of the whale.

The young whale was 41 feet long and probably weighed 15 to 20 tons. Unlike many other right whales, this animal had not yet been given a name by whale researchers who know most of the individuals in the population. However, a unique raised skin pattern on his head allowed biologists to identify him as a juvenile that had been born in 2005 to a mother named Columbine. Right whale calves typically stay with their mothers for a year. Juvenile males occasionally migrate down the East Coast late each autumn as do pregnant females to the calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida.

The 2006 right whale death tally took a particularly heavy toll on very young animals including three calves, a two year old male, and a sub-adult female. On January 10, 2006 a male calf was killed north of Jacksonville, Florida by a ship strike. Less than two weeks later, a female calf was found dead with injuries consistent with entanglement in a gillnet off the north Florida coast. In May, a sub-adult female was found off the coast of Long Island. The carcass was not retrievable, and so a cause of death could not be determined. In July, a female calf was killed by a ship strike off the coast of New Brunswick. In early September, an adult female was found dead off of Yarmouth Nova Scotia due to a ship strike. Saturday’s death of the ship struck juvenile male off of Georgia brings the official total for 2006 to six. However, researchers point out that another calf most likely died early in 2006 after it had been repeatedly spotted with its mother but was never seen again despite many more sightings of the mother throughout the year. These deaths represent just the minimum level of mortality as many more deaths likely go unnoted if the carcass is not seen or sinks upon death.

With less than 400 North Atlantic right whales on the planet, scientific studies have shown that the precarious population cannot withstand this level of human caused mortality. The National Marine Fisheries Service has been in the process of proposed rulemaking to better protect right whales from both shipping and fishing impacts for several years. However, Amy Knowlton, a senior New England Aquarium right whale researcher laments, “The process has been impeded because of internal conflict between federal agencies about whether and how to implement such rules, and strong opposition from affected industries who are resisting the need to change business as usual to protect this beleaguered species. We have an opportunity to show the world that this country is willing and able to take the lead in implementing strong, well-researched, and unprecedented measures to protect an endangered species that lives in our near-coastal waters. The implementation of the proposed rules as quickly as possible is critical to the survival of the species.”

Among the proposed rules is a requirement to reduce ship speeds when within 30 miles of port entrances along the eastern seaboard on a seasonal basis when right whales are typically in the area. There are other proposals to reroute shipping lanes around areas where right whales aggregate to feed. This type of measure was implemented successfully in 2004 in Canada’s Bay of Fundy, which is the principal late summer feeding ground for many right whales. A similar proposal is in the works to move the shipping lanes going into Boston, which has America’s only whale feeding marine sanctuary, just 25 miles east of its port.

“We know how to reduce human caused right whale deaths through common sense measures that are not onerous to industry. Now we need to implement these solutions in a timely fashion. The urgency of the situation is obvious. The extinction time clock on North Atlantic right whales might be rapidly winding down,” stated Tony LaCasse, the spokesperson for the New England Aquarium.

New England Aquarium scientists have been conducting field research on right whales for over 25 years.