The Beacon

Blog Tags: Right Whales

Right Whales Wronged

(Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Permit 15488)

This story ran in the recent issue of Oceana magazine. 

The waters of the mid-Atlantic are alive with sound. The snaps, squeaks, bubbles, pops, and whistles of marine life ring through the water, interspersed with the low calls of North Atlantic right whales. But this chorus of sound may soon be drowned out.

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High-Tech Robot Seeks Out Right Whales

Chief scientist Mark Baumgartner secures glider (with its wings removed) after it was recovered Dec. 4 from its three-week mission. Photo by Nadine Lysiak, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place over the weekend, but one new high-tech babysitter was not featured in Las Vegas.  The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has developed underwater robots to find, track, and protect baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine, particularly the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

Between mid-November and early-December, the torpedo-shaped gliders located nine right whales, empowering regulators to institute a voluntary speed restriction in the area to decrease the threat of boat strikes.  This represents the first time an autonomous vehicle has successfully detected and reported the location of baleen whales.

Right whales were one of the first species to be dramatically affected by commercial whaling, and remain one of the most critically endangered species of whales, with less than 400 individuals in the North Atlantic population.  While whales can get caught as bycatch in commercial fisheries, run-ins with ships account for one third of all right whale deaths, so the ability to warn boats of their proximity is an important component of their continued protection.

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Oceana Holds Seismic Airgun Protest

Protesters brave the rain ©OCEANA

Yesterday Oceana and its supporters braved foul weather to protest a truly foul idea. Armed with airhorns and megaphones they gave the Department of the Interior (DOI) a tiny preview of what is in store for the ocean’s inhabitants should the Department allow seismic airgun testing to go forward in the Atlantic Ocean.

The DOI is currently reviewing a proposal to use seismic airguns to search for pockets of oil and gas in a huge expanse of ocean from Delaware to Florida. The effects of these round-the-clock tests, which will run for days on end with dynamite-like blasts firing at 10 second intervals, will be devastating to marine mammals and fish alike.

As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck said at the event:

“There is only one word that I can use that sums up this proposal: unacceptable. The levels of impacts to protected dolphins and whales, including critically endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale are simply unacceptable.”

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Whale Wednesday: Speed Limits Edition

north atlantic right whale

Here's your zen moment of the day for Whale Wednesday: take a deep breath, a cue from the remaining North Atlantic right whales, and slow it down. A new study indicates that larger areas of speed limits for ships around major ports could significantly help the survival of North Atlantic right whales, whose population numbers fewer than 400 individuals. The study notes that expanding seasonal speed-restriction zones around major East Coast ports by 10 nautical miles would significantly reduce the risk of collisions with ships, which are among the greatest threats to the whales. And not only would expanded speed limits help save these endangered whales, they would also help combat climate change. As Oceana wrote in a report from last year, Shipping Impacts on Climate, reducing the shipping fleet's speed is one significant way to cut fuel costs and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, and nitrous oxide.

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Good Tidings for Right Whales

right whale and calf

CNN has a terrific story about this year's crop of right whales, among the most endangered animals on earth. Just an estimated 400 of these massive creatures still live off the U.S. Atlantic coast, and they sometimes get struck by ships or tangled in lobster trap lines. But there seems to be good news: This year's crop of right whale calves is the largest ever recorded, with at least 32 new whales spotted by a bevy of scientists in prop planes and volunteers at lookout points on beaches. It's really a great story, so head on over and check it out.

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Right Whales Get Right of Way

north atlantic right whale

There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining in the world today. After being hunted nearly to extinction in the 18th century, they are now most at risk from ship strikes. But starting today, the whales will get the right of way. A new federal rule requires ships 65 feet or larger to slow down to 11.5 miles per hour, or 10 knots, near East Coast ports when whales could be nearby. The whales -- so-called because they were the "right" whale to kill for oil because they floated when dead -- feed close to the surface and are especially vulnerable because many shipping lanes cut across their migration routes. Many of the creatures also get tangled in fishing gear, but scientists say ships are their main killer: At least one-third of all the right whales that died in the last decade died from ship strikes. The controversial measure has environmentalists cheering, but will the measure be enough to save the species?

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Saving the Whales...Via Their Poop?

humpback whale

Props to the folks over at the Science blog Zooillogix for a great post this week about scientists in New England who are studying the Atlantic's threatened population of right whales by collecting and analyzing their floating, um, poop. Joking aside, analyzing whale poop -- or any other method of determining the health of certain whale populations -- is apparently needed. This week, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species revealed that while there is some good news for whales and some bad, the bottom line was that more data is needed. The IUCN was unable to assess more than half of the world's cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) because of a lack of data.

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