Aquarium Right Whale Scientist Philip Hamilton co-leads major US-Canadian study of mortality and breeding problems with the critically endangered species

Philip Hamilton (above) is Genome Atlantic’s project co-lead and Senior Scientist, Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

BOSTON, MASS. (July 22, 2021) – The New England Aquarium’s Philip Hamilton, a leading expert on right whale biology and Senior Scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, is co-leading a major $6 million, four-year international study with Canadian researchers to assess how genetic factors are hampering the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, the Canadian government announced today.

Called “Conservation Genomics of the Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale,” the project is a collaboration with the Aquarium, the nonprofit Genome Atlantic, and Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Other collaborators include Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Whale Institute in Canada, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Duke University, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.) The project is expected to start between July and September this year.

The number of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales continues to be buffeted by high mortality rates from vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, and by a low rate of reproduction. There is now estimated to be fewer than 400 individuals left, including less than 100 breeding females. With inbreeding suspected as a major factor in the species’ low birth rate, a Canadian-U.S. team of scientists is launching a research project to assess how genetic factors are hampering the right whale’s recovery.

“Since 2015, this species has experienced a precipitous decline that is unprecedented in 40 years of study,” Hamilton said. “We know many are dying from vessel strikes and entanglements; We don’t know the impacts of non-lethal wounds caused by humans, or the impacts of their reduced breeding pool. We need to make bold changes to how we use the oceans and to do so, we need as much understanding of the problem and cultural support for those changes.” 

Managed by Genome Atlantic, the project is co-led by Hamilton and Dr. Timothy Frasier of Saint Mary’s University, who has been doing genetic analysis of the right whale for more than 20 years. The project will look at genetic factors that could explain why the reproductive rate of North Atlantic right whales is three times lower than their known potential. The team also plans to assess if, and to what degree, non-lethal encounters with vessels and fishing gear change the expression of genes in a manner that lowers the long-term health and reproduction of individuals, and to evaluate the ramifications for conservation of the species. The team will combine genomics– the study of genes and their functions–with long-term field data on North Atlantic right whales and their reproductive histories. 

Recommendations, based on the project findings, will be made to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada and to the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in the U.S. on right whale-related recovery expectations, goals and conservation priorities. The results could have implications for marine management policies, practices and conservation plans. The two government entities are charged with managing and conserving the North Atlantic right whale population within their respective jurisdictions. Seasonal migrations, which send a portion of the right whale population through Canadian and American waters, have made recovery of the species a joint concern.

Whales play a vital role in stabilizing marine ecosystems by helping to regulate a wide spectrum of marine organisms with their presence. The nitrogen-laden fecal matter they release when they rise to the ocean’s surface to defecate, for instance, is known to stimulate plankton growth and other microorganisms that form the foundation of the oceanic food chain, critical to the existence of marine life and for the maintenance of the fishing industry.

Besides Genome Canada funding, the international research project is being supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Research Nova Scotia in Canada, and by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the US National Marine Fisheries Service, and the New England Aquarium.

This landmark project was one of eight announced today by Canada’s Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. The projects are the latest to attain funding through Genome Canada’s Large-Scale Applied   Research Project (LSARP) Competition.

 

ABOUT GENOME ATLANTIC

Genome Atlantic is a not-for-profit corporation with a mission to help Atlantic Canada reap the economic and social benefits of genomics technologies.  Since its inception in 2000, the corporation has worked with a range of private and public-sector partners to enable more than $125 million in new genomics R&D.

ABOUT THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM

The New England Aquarium is a global leader in marine science and conservation, working to safeguard ocean animals and habitats. With more than 1.3 million visitors a year, the Aquarium is one of the premier visitor attractions in Boston and a major public education resource for the region. The Aquarium’s research and rescue efforts build on the institution’s 50-year legacy of protecting the blue planet and advocating for vital and vibrant oceans. In the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, scientists conduct applied marine research that informs ocean management, policy, and industry practices, and contributes to the innovation of new technologies. Through its Sea Turtle Rescue Program, the Aquarium helps protect critically endangered and threatened sea turtle populations through rescue, rehabilitation, and release efforts.  

ABOUT ST. MARY’S UNIVERSITY

Saint Mary’s University is one of Canada’s top primary undergraduate universities–known for its international collaborations, leadership in entrepreneurship, and research that benefits local and global communities. Our programs in Arts, Science, Graduate Studies and the Sobey School of Business are among Canada’s best and feature professors who are committed to the success of their students. Saint Mary’s provides our 7,000 students with a place that fosters possibility, excellent research opportunities, and distinguished graduate and professional programs combined with a caring community. Nestled in the heart of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast, Saint Mary’s University is marked by iconic buildings, green spaces and fresh ocean air. The Saint Mary’s University community is committed to a prosperous future for the world—a world without limits.

MEDIA CONTACTS:

Pam Bechtold Snyder – New England Aquarium – psnyder@neaq.org; 617-686-5068

Charmaine Gaudet – Genome Atlantic – cgaudet@genomeatlantic.ca; 902-488-7837