Tag Archives: right whale

Speed Limits Save Right Whales

Numbering just 500, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the rarest animals in the world. The whales have been hunted nearly to extinction. Now protected, their biggest threats are being hit by ships and entanglement in fishing gear. With no progress in reducing entanglement deaths, reducing ship collisions has become even more important.

The speed a ship is going means the difference between life and death for the whales. New research has found that if ships are travelling at less than 10 knots then all right whales survive.

When large vessels travel at more than 10 knots, whales are pulled towards the ships’ hulls and propellers with increasing force as the ship goes faster. The whales are also more likely to be run into by ships travelling at speed.

In 2008 America introduced seasonal speed restrictions in right whale feeding areas, migratory corridors and calving areas off the east coast. The original proposals were watered down though – the corridors protected were narrower than the actual migratory routes for example.

Since the speed limits were imposed, no right whales whatsoever have been killed by colliding with ships in the managed areas! A significant boost for whale numbers. The research was published in the Endangered Species Research journal by David W. Laist, Amy R. Knowlton and Daniel Pendleton. The researchers call for the protection for migratory corridors to be widened and the speed limits retained indefinitely. They also want more seasonal restrictions to protect humpback whales. There are people suggesting that dredged channels be exempt from the restrictions, but the researchers point out that because whales must travel across those channels they are at no less risk of being struck and so the dredged channels should stay.

Photo by Wildlife Trust, NOAA Permit #594-1759, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Further Reading
Laist DW, Knowlton AR, Pendleton D (2014) Effectiveness of mandatory vessel speed limits for protecting North Atlantic right whales. Endang Species Res 23:133-147
The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

Whale Watching from Space

But not by astronauts or space tourists. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey are using satellite images to detect and count southern right whales (Eubalaena australis).

In recent years there have been over 420 deaths of these whales in their nursery grounds at Península Valdés in Argentina. (Out of a population last estimated at 2577 whales.) Most of the dead were calves. This number of deaths suggests that the right whale population, and its ecosystem, may be less healthy and robust than previously thought. The whales at Península Valdés comprise the largest single population and the high mortality rate has raised fresh concern for the future of the species.

Traditionally whale population size has been assessed by counting from boats, planes or shore. This is labour-intensive, costly and can be inefficient. Detection probabilities are high for ship surveys, but where surveys are carried out by small airplanes rates can be down to 40%. The researchers have tested a method of identifying whales automatically from high resolutions satellite images. They chose southern right whales to evaluate their method, as, they say “The southern right whale is an ideal subject for this work for many of the same reasons as it was an ideal whale to hunt, specifically its large size and a tendency, in the breeding season, to bask near the surface in large aggregations around sheltered coastal waters.”

The researchers – Peter T. Fretwell, Iain J. Staniland and Jaume Forcada – analysed the images manually and using image processing software.

Probable whales found by automated
Probable whales found by the automated analysis. Several of the images could be interpreted as whale pairs, or as a mother and calf, others may be displaying behaviour such as tail slapping, rolling or blowing. On several images there is a strong return at one end of the feature which is mostly likely the calluses on the whales head. Reprinted under a CC BY license with permission from British Antarctic Survey and DigitalGlobe.

Manually identified whales were put into three classes; shapes that are whale-like and whale-sized are classed as probable whales, other objects are classed as possible whales, but may include bubble slicks and some groups of seabirds. The third class are objects interpreted as sub-surface feature that are potentially whales. Their automated method found 89% of the objects manually classed as probable whales, with 23.7% false positives.

How do they know a whale-like blob is a whale? They used three criteria used to identify any objects in remotely sensed imagery:

  1. The object is the right size and shape to be a whale
  2. The object is in a place we would expect to find whales
  3. There are no (or few) other types of objects that could be misclassified as whales to cause errors of commission.

Overall the researchers were satisfied with their results and suggested that larger surveys over whole calving areas, which could potentially measure thousands of square kilometres, could be automated with a degree of success using their techniques.

Southern right whales were hunted extensively from the 17th through to the 20th century. The pre-whaling population has been estimated at 55,000–70,000 dropping to a low of just 300 animals by the 1920s.

Further Reading:
Fretwell PT, Staniland IJ, Forcada J (2014) Whales from Space: Counting Southern Right Whales by Satellite. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88655. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088655

Photo credit: Southern right whale (Peninsula Valdés, Patagonia, Argentina) by Michaël Catanzariti

Lawsuit Seeks Plan for Most Endangered Large Whale in World

The Center for Biological Diversity yesterday filed a formal notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to develop a recovery plan under the Endangered Species Act for the highly endangered North Pacific right whale. The North Pacific right whale is thought to be the most endangered large whale in the world, with as few as 30 individuals in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska and perhaps a few hundred in Russia’s Okhotsk Sea.

“North Pacific right whales lead a precarious existence,” said the Center’s Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “Without the full protections of the Endangered Species Act, including a strong recovery plan, these whales will live on only in history books.”

Under the US Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service is required to issue and implement a plan for the conservation and recovery of the North Pacific right whale. Although the whale has been listed as endangered as a “northern right whale” since 1973 and since 2008 as a species in its own right, this critically endangered whale has no recovery plan.

“Recovery plans are essential to saving struggling species and helping them recover to the point where they no longer need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” said Noblin. “Studies have shown that species with recovery plans are far more likely to be on the road to recovery than those without.”

Right whales were so named because they were the “right whale to hunt”: they are slow swimmers, they swim within sight of shore and their carcasses float. Right whales were hunted for oil, meat, corset stays, umbrella ribs and buggy whips — until the early 20th century. Once abundant, numbering as many as 20,000 before the advent of commercial whaling, the North Pacific right whale is now the most endangered whale in the world. Today the few remaining individuals are extremely vulnerable to ship strikes, oil development and oil spills, and entanglement in fishing gear. With so few North Pacific right whales in existence, the loss of even one whale could threaten the entire population.

Though the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) has been considered officially endangered for almost 40 years, it long shared its Endangered Species Act listing with the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), thus not receiving the individual recognition and protection it deserved. But in 2008 the whales were listed as endangered as a distinct species, significantly increasing their legal protection and triggering requirements to prepare a recovery plan and take other measures for the whales’ conservation.

As compared with the intensively studied North Atlantic right whale, the more offshore and remote distribution of the North Pacific right whale may be an advantage in terms of less intensive exposure to human impacts, but the disadvantage is that impacts that do occur are less likely to be detected and their consequences are harder to ascertain and evaluate.

Further Reading:
Center for Biological Diversity
More Right Whale news stories
Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G.P., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N. 2008. Eubalaena japonica. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. .

Image: puttsk

Endangered right whales found where they were thought extinct

Right WhaleUsing a system of underwater hydrophones that can record sounds from hundreds of miles away, a team of scientists has documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area they were thought to be extinct.

The discovery is particularly important, researchers say, because it is in an area that may be opened to shipping if the melting of polar ice continues, as expected.

Results of the study were presented this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

The scientists from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are unsure of exactly how many whales were in the region, which is off the southern tip of Greenland and site of an important 19th-century whaling area called Cape Farewell Ground. But they recorded more than 2000 right whale vocalizations in the region from July to December of 2007.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that – contrary to general belief – a remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger, chief scientist of the project.

“We don’t know how many right whales there were in the area,” Mellinger added. “They aren’t individually distinctive in their vocalizations. But we did hear right whales at three widely space sites on the same day, so the absolute minimum is three. Even that number is significant because the entire population is estimated to be only 300 to 400 whales.”

Only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, where they had been hunted to near extinction prior to the adoption of protective measures.

The pattern of recorded calls suggests that the whales moved from the southwest portion of the region in a northeasterly direction in late July, and then returned in September – putting them directly where proposed future shipping lanes would be likely.

Right whales are the most endangered large whale and vulnerable to collisions with ships as they ignore general ship sounds. Alarm sirens intended to scare them away from ships may actually be more likely to cause a collision, as the whales have been shown to rush to the surface when they hear the alarm.

Related News:
Lawsuit Filed to Protect World’s Most Endangered Whale

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Lawsuit Filed to Protect World’s Most Endangered Whale

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit to compel the Bush administration to protect the North Pacific Right Whale under the federal Endangered Species Act. The US Department of the Interior has proposed opening up areas in the Bering Sea frequented by the species to offshore oil development. Additionally, President Bush is considering lifting the presidential withdrawal that currently prohibits such development.

The North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica), once ranging from Baja California to Alaska, is the most endangered large whale in the world, with perhaps as few as 100 individuals remaining. Devastated by commercial whaling, North Pacific Right Whales now face the threat of oil and gas development in their critical habitat.

Currently, three species of right whales are recognized by scientists. They are the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica), the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) and the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis). While recent genetic data supports this three-species taxonomy, right whales in the North Atlantic and North Pacific are still listed under the Endangered Species Act as a single species (Balaena glacialis). Separate listing of the North Pacific Right Whale would force the preparation of a recovery plan and other actions to protect the species and its habitat.

“With the announced extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin this week, the North Pacific Right Whale now holds the dubious distinction of being the most endangered marine mammal in the world,” said Brendan Cummings, Ocean Program Director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Bush administration seems determined to have the North Pacific Right Whale follow the river dolphin into oblivion. Full protection under the Endangered Species Act will help the species avoid that fate.”

A copy of the complaint and more information on the North Pacific Right Whale is available on the Center for Biological Diversity’s Web site.

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