Tag Archives: Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Right Whales Through the Eyes of Herman Melville

The following post is part of a series of blogs created for the Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale page on Facebook. Three organizations (WDC, ASRI, NBWM) from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meet monthly to create and update right whale related curriculum, discuss important issues related to the NARW and devise ways to bring awareness to the precarious status of the population of this highly endangered species. The FB page is a result of these meetings.

Because the Whaling Museum hosted the 19th annual Moby-Dick Marathon earlier this month, it was deemed appropriate to weave Eubalaena glacialis and Herman Melville together, something he first did in 1851. However, in 2015, it has been done in a more contemporary form of print media.

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

When Moby-Dick was published in 1851, confusion still existed as to which whales were Right whales and which were later to be known as Bowhead whales. In Chapter 32, Cetology, Melville attacks the topic of whale taxonomy like a librarian, splitting up the whales based on size. Thus, the known whales were split into three groups: Folio Whales, Octavo Whales and Duodecimo Whales.

Our whale is considered as Chapter 2 of the Folio Whales and is called a Right Whale. “In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as “whale oil”, an inferior article in commerce.”

However, it becomes clear immediately that there is confusion as to which whale he is trying to describe, “Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; The Black Whale; The Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baliene Ordinaire of the French whalemen; The Growlands Walfish of the Swedes.”

The text that follows makes it clear that rights and bowheads are being conflated, “It is the whale which for more than two centuries past has been hunted by the Dutch and English in the Arctic seas; it is the whale which the American fishermen have long pursued in the Indian ocean, on the Brazil Banks, on the Nor’ West Coast, and various other parts of the world, designated by them Right Whale Cruising Grounds.”

Later in the story in Chapter 58, Brit, however, there is no confusion as to which species they see while sailing north east of the Crozetts (small islands directly south of Madagascar). “On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a sperm whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip.”

Two paragraphs later he captures the experience of most people the first time they see any species of right whale in the water, “Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else….And when recognized at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, on all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.”

Melville later dedicates an entire chapter, #75, to describing the head of a right whale. “So, at a broad view, the Right Whale’s head bears a rather inelegant resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe.”

Luckily the science of cetacean taxonomy has come a long way since the mid -1800s and there’s no confusion as to which whales are Eubalaena glacialis and which are Balaena mysticetus.  We have also long settled the discussion as to whether or not whales are fish. Just before he dives into his book-focused classification of cetaceans, Melville states, “To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.”

There are many intentionally funny moments in Moby-Dick. This one was not written to be humorous, but has become quite laughable. That being said, Moby-Dick has stood the test of time to become one of the humankind’s classic stories. It has put whales in the consciousness of thousands of people, including those who attend the Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon each January. Perhaps some of you will join us at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2016.

Whale Waste Does Not Go To Waste

An evocative and informative video clip, posted by Sustainable Human, complete with stunning footage of humpback whales, has been released to laud the biological benefits of whale waste. The key point is that as whales release their waste, the iron in their fecal matter spurs the photosynthesis performed by phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is food for zooplankton and other filter feeders. The phytoplankton also traps carbon dioxide. If those phytoplankters die, they sink to the bottom thus removing the CO2 from circulation.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

This video introduces the story in an eye-catching manner. Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, then does a great job of elaborating on the concept of whale feces providing the iron necessary to support this phytoplankton that generate much of the energy at the beginning of marine food webs. He also gives credit to Dr. Victor Smetacek from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for first considering the connection between an iron-poor environment like the Antarctic and the enormous animals that were successful in finding ample food supplies in such a contradictory environment.

The connections between organisms are more complex than simple food chains, even though it is certainly much easier to explain the relationships as linear patterns.  Phytoplankton are eaten by more than 80 species of krill, 15,000+ species of copepod, thousands of species of fish, many of the shellfish we eat, and countless other species.  These food webs are the most robust when all levels, especially those considered to be the top of these trophic relationships are allowed to flourish. Removing something as significant as whales not only changes the dynamics within ocean ecosystems, it creates changes that belie our expectations.

A Small but Critical Victory for Right Whales

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Phoenix and calf. Sea to Shore Alliance photo.

Five years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enacted a seasonal ship strike rule to protect migrating, endangered North Atlantic right whales (NARW). This rule requires that vessels 65 feet (19.8m) or longer limit themselves to a maximum speed of 10 mph (16 kph) in designated zones (Seasonal Management Areas) during specified periods of time. For the Northeast, that meant January 1 – March 15 in Cape Cod Bay, March 1 – April 30 off Race Pt in Provincetown and April 1 – July 31 in the Great South Channel. The time frames for the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast reflect the months that NARWs are expected to be in those regions. This rule, proven to be effective so far, was important for the protection of this critically endangered species, the population of which is estimated at approximately 500 animals.

However, the rule had an end date attached to it, December 9, 2013. A year ago, the NBWM hosted colleagues from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, (Provincetown) Center for Coastal Studies, Humane Society of the U.S., Rhode Island Audubon and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium to announce a campaign to convince NOAA to drop the end date (also known as a sunset clause) from this rule. We debuted the campaign video ‘Act Right Now Save a Species’, held a panel discussion, and made a petition available for signature by any citizen. In the past year, over 145,000 comments were sent to NOAA and 75,000+ people signed the petition.

Today NOAA announced that it has dropped the sunset clause from the Ship Strike Rule, thus making the rule permanent.  Collisions between whales and vessels are typically fatal. Two of the skeletons that hang in our Museum, the North Atlantic right whale with fetus, and the blue whale were killed by vessel strikes. By forcing vessels to slow down during those times when NARWs are expected to be in a given area, both whales and mariners have greater opportunity to steer clear of each other. This is a win-win situation and has proven to be much less of a burden on vessel operators than previously estimated.

The issue of entanglement has yet to be solved. But on a rainy day, NOAA’s decision is indeed a bright beam of excellent news for an endangered species and for the dozens of people who dedicate themselves to studying and protecting the North Atlantic right whale.

 

Brian Skerry, NatGeo Photographer, at NBWM on December 1

We have been working with colleagues at Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Audubon Society of Rhode Island to raise awareness about the survival issues facing the North Atlantic right whale.  Over the past year, the most timely issue has been the ‘Ship Strike Rule’ that was enacted in 2008 and given an end date of December 9, 2013. It would be up to supporters of this rule to petition the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to eliminate, or at minimum, push the sunset date back as more data was gathered regarding the effectiveness of this seasonal slow-down for ships longer than 65 feet.

We held a press event on December 9, 2012 to announce the Act Right Now campaign to continue the Ship Strike Rule in perpetuity. In that time, a campaign video was released, right whale curriculum was finalized and distributed to teachers in several states, a fun run was held in Plymouth, hundreds of letters were sent to NOAA stating support for the rule, and over 75,000 people signed the petition that was sent to NOAA headquarters.

As a means of highlighting the progress made in the past year and to bring further attention to this highly endangered species, the Whaling Museum will host a celebratory event on Sunday, December 1, beginning at noon. Headlining this event is renowned National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry. Brian was born and raised in Massachusetts and his work is known around the world. He is the recent winner of the Underwater Category of the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition! One of his photographs, of a Southern right whale, is featured prominently in our From Pursuit to Preservation exhibit. We are very happy to host him and this great event in three weeks.

 

Post_Card Brian_Skerry Dec1 Event

The schedule for the event is on the post card above. Please note that the tickets are being sold via our colleagues at Whale and Dolphin Conservation. But, if you do have questions, you can call NBWM Science Director, Robert Rocha, (508) 717-6849.

Protection for N.Atl. Right Whales May Become Permanent

Sixth months ago, on Saturday, December 9, the Whaling Museum hosted a press conference to announce the campaign to make the 2008 NOAA ‘Ship Strike Rule’ permanent. This rule was put in place for five years to test its effectiveness in protecting North Atlantic right whales in their habitat along the east coast of the United States. The rule dictates that during seasons in which NARWs are known to be in a given area at a certain time of the year ((e.g. in Cape Cod Bay from January 1 – May 15) ships greater than 65 feet must slow to 10 knots. The time periods for these slower speeds vary based on where the whales are expected to be during the year. This rule has proven to be very effective. No whales have been reported as having been struck in these Seasonal Management Areas since the rule went into effect. The cost to mariners is less than anticipated. The rule is having the desired effect.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, June 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened a 60-day comment period for the proposal to make Speed Restrictions to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales (50 CFR 224.10), colloquially known as the Ship Strike Rule, permanent. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Rhode Island Audubon Society, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, select faculty from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Right Whale team from the New England Aquarium and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) all support making this rule permanent. It could certainly be made stronger by expanding the restriction to all vessels, not just those 65 feet or longer. But the simple elimination of the ‘sunset date’ of December 9, 2013 would be a testament to the effectiveness of this rule and a big step in expanding protections for a species whose population numbers somewhere around 500.

North Atlantic Right Whale female and calf. NOAA photo.

North Atlantic Right Whale female and calf. NOAA photo.

We invite you to learn more about the effectiveness of this rule by viewing the campaign video commissioned by WDC. This video features excellent footage of NARWs and the Museum’s right whale skeleton, Reyna – a whale killed by ship strike, and commentary from several members of the NARWC. Your comments to NOAA are welcome and encouraged.

Whale Watching Season Has Begun

Friend and colleague, Carol ‘Krill’ Carson, of New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance has posted a blog to Wicked Local with exciting news about yesterday’s whale watch in Massachusetts Bay.  The boat went out to the waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), which has been listed as one of the 10 best whale watching sites on the planet.  Whether they leave from Provincetown, Barnstable, Plymouth, Boston or Gloucester, whale watch companies all motor out to the SBNMS.  Yesterday’s whale watchers got to see six different species of cetacean, including the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW).

Since regulations call for keeping a distance of 500 yards from the NARW, it’s a rarity to get such a close up look from a whale watch boat. WW boats must stay 100 yards away from all other marine mammal species. So, what all whale watchers hope for is that the whales and dolphins swim up to the boat, so they can all get a close look.

If you’re interested in seeing the NARW up close, you may be better served driving out to Plymouth or Provincetown to view them from the beach. Sometimes they come in quite close, much closer than 500 yards.  The  Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale Facebook page is reporting that 68 North Atlantic right whales were seen in Cape Cod Bay yesterday. That’s the most ever for one day.

On a related note…

We thank NECWA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, NOAA Northeast Regional Office, author/artist Peter Stone and the NBWM High School Apprentices for putting on a great Right Whale Day here at the Museum on Monday, April 15.  It was a great way for nearly 350 people to start their vacation week and learn about the right whale.

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Notable Year for Right Whale Births

Knowing that there are more North Atlantic Right Whale calves this year than last (20 vs. 6) makes for good news. What makes this really interesting is that two of the calves have made first time grandmothers out of two of the whales, made Wart a great-grandmother and put 1134 in the category of most prolific, with her 9th calf. The Savannah Morning News published an article yesterday about this year’s calves and about the sightings in the Southeast region during the winter months.

North Atlantic right whales are beginning to return to Massachusetts coastal waters for feeding and gathering in ‘surface active groups‘, otherwise known as SAGs.  Perhaps the best way to see these animals is from shore, especially a place like Race Point Beach in Provincetown. Whale watch boats must maintain a distance of 500 yards from these animals, as opposed to 100 yards for all other species typically seen on local whale watches. So, the whales are more likely to be closer to the shore than they are to a boat.

North Atlantic right whale breaching in Cape Cod Bay, May 2009.  Taken by Regina Asmutis-Silvia/WDCS

North Atlantic right whale breaching in Cape Cod Bay, May 2009. Taken by Regina Asmutis-Silvia/WDC

Your New Bedford Whaling Museum will celebrate this unusual, endangered species on Monday, April 15 with our fourth annual Right Whale Day. From 10:00am – 2:00pm, with the help of our friends at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, NOAA’s Office of Education, artist/author Peter Stone, and the Museum’s High School Apprentices, we will have a right whale obstacle course, multiple craft and activity tables, a 48-foot inflatable right whale (which you can into), a right whale drawing workshop, stories, lots of information and artifacts and cake. You can also sign the petition to extend past December 9 the rule that has done a very good job of protecting these whales from ship strikes.  All of these activities are FREE.

Iceland Whaling Company Using Whale Oil for Fuel

Illustration of fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), by Uko Gorter.

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Illustration by Uko Gorter.

This morning we posted a Guardian (UK) story on our Facebook page about Iceland’s lone whaling company combining oil extracted from endangered fin whales with marine oil to power their fleet. Another publication, Wildlife Extra News has picked up on this story as well.

Hvalur is the only whaling company in Iceland. Their CEO, Kristjan Loftsson, is a veteran of the whaling industry, having started as an observer on his father’s whale ships in 1956. In a June 2010 story, published by Google News and AFP (and posted on our Bulletin Board that month), he made his attitude towards whales quite clear while in attendance at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Morocco. “Whales are just another fish for me, an abundant marine resource, nothing else…If they are so intelligent why don’t they stay outside of Iceland’s territorial waters?”

Iceland has increased their quota this year for fin whales, the second largest species of whale and historically the most hunted of the great whales. In compiling the data from the IWC database, and recent reports by researcher Yulia Ivashchenko of corrected Soviet whaling harvest totals, I estimate that approximately 900,000 fin whales were killed globally via factory whaling methods between 1900-2000.  Unlike Japan, which does its harvesting under the heading of Scientific Whaling, Iceland makes no such claims. Their hunt is strictly commercial, with their sales going mainly to Japan and to tourists who visit Iceland. Iceland and Norway both hunt commercially in defiance of the voluntary moratorium agreed to by IWC members in 1983 and enacted in full in 1986.

Mr. Loftsson’s claim that this new fuel mix should be considered a green biofuel is ludicrous. Utilizing an endangered species to cut down on use of fossil fuels to then hunt more of that same species serves no benefit to the marine environment.  Chris Butler-Stroud, the Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), summarized the duplicitous nature of this strategy, “This is a completely absurd, perverse and unethical move by an industry that is already steeped in the blood of whales, and which is now prepared to use the remains of dead whales to keep its own vessels afloat.”

Act Right Now – Save a Species…The Video

North Atlantic right whale killed by ship strike. Photo by Monica Zani, New England Aquarium. Taken under NOAA/NMFS federal permit.

North Atlantic right whale killed by ship strike. Photo by Monica Zani, New England Aquarium. Taken under NOAA/NMFS federal permit.

On December 9 of last year, less than two months ago, the Whaling Museum hosted a press conference to announce the launching of the Act Right Now – Save a Species campaign. This campaign seeks to remove the ‘sunset’ date of December 9, 2013 that was included as part of the rule that requires ships greater than 65 feet to slow down to 10 knots when they enter areas known to be inhabited by the North Atlantic right whale. This rule is seasonal, since the NARW migrates along the eastern seaboard of the United States.  Based on the results of the first four years, this rule is proving to be an effective tool in cutting down on ship strikes in these areas.

It is critical that this rule be kept in place, if we are to minimize one of the human-induced causes of right whale mortality. Any population of animal that is as endangered as this one is (the population hovers around 500) needs our help for survival, especially if we know how to prevent these types of fatal interactions.

To that end, our colleagues at Whale and Dolphin Conservation commissioned a video to tell this story and to urge NOAA to remove the expiration date from this rule.  Several partners of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, including WM staff participated in this important effort. We encourage you to watch this compelling eight minute video, which has both excellent footage of right whales and gruesome images of ship strikes,  and then sign the petition to extend the life of the 2008 Final Rule to Implement Speed Restrictions to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions with North Atlantic Right Whales.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium consists of members from dozens of agencies, non-profits, universities and whale related businesses.  We proudly host their annual meeting each November.

Right Whales Arrive Very Early

The sighting of a North Atlantic right whale (NARW) in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Plymouth, MA is not unusual, except when the sighting happens between November and February.  But, when the whale is a female that hadn’t been seen for nearly three years, and she is accompanied by a calf, then the sighting is cause for celebration. This whale, nicknamed Wart, had been severely entangled in netting for two (probably excruciating) years before the third disentanglement attempt by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies finally set her free in May of 2010. She hadn’t been seen since.

So, it was a very nice surprise when the adult was identified from North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog as ‘Wart’. This calf is her seventh, and her first since 2005. Typically, NARW females have a calving interval of 3-5 years.  This eight year stretch between calves may say a great deal about the physical stress that entanglement puts on the body of a right whale, especially a female. There’s a brief story and photo on CBS Local Boston.

The only known calving grown for the NARW is off the coast of southern Georgia and northern Florida. So far in this calving season, including Wart and her calf, there have been 14 mother-calf pairs spotted.

For photographs of both mom and calf, you can visit the Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale page on Facebook.   These photos were taken by staff of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).  We encourage you to ‘Like’ the page. One of the goals for this page when it was set up by WDC, NBWM and Audubon Society of RI was to have as many people Like the page as there are NARWs. Presently the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, which is maintained by the New England Aquarium, lists 509 living whales. Now that we’ve reached that goal, it’s time to double it.