A North Atlantic Right Whale mother with her calf

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA 

In the race against extinction, there’s no greater nail-biter than the case of the North Atlantic right whale.

In the entire northwest Atlantic Ocean – the east coasts of both Canada and the United States – it’s believed there are fewer than 400 individual right whales left. Even this frightfully small population puts others in the northern hemisphere to shame. On the Pacific coast of North America, there are fewer than 50 right whales remaining. On the far side of the North Atlantic – the east coast of Europe – the number of right whales is measured in the teens. They are among the rarest of the great whales.

The right whale has two critical habitats identified in Canadian waters – the Roseway Basin on the Scotian Shelf and the Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy. However this vulnerable cetacean does make its way farther north into the Gulf of St Lawrence, particularly to the waters south of the Gaspe Peninsula and those surrounding Newfoundland.

On the Pacific coast of North America, there are fewer than 50 right whales remaining.

They grow to 17 metres in length and can weigh 60-70 metric tonnes, with their heads accounting for 25 per cent of their body size. Rich in blubber and slow compared to other whale species, the right whale was a prime target in the days of commercial whaling. When killed it would float, allowing for harvesting convenience. In fact, it was so sought after that early whalers came to call it the right whale, in other words, the “right” whale to hunt.

Their skin is often dark grey or black in colour, occasionally with white underbellies, but most right whales swimming today carry white scars on their heads, backs and tails from encounters with fishing gear. Becoming entangled in such gear, most often vertical or horizontal lines used in fixed gear fisheries, can prevent the whales from feeding properly and even cause them to drown.

“Studies indicate that over 70 per cent of living right whales bear scars from being entangled, however, only a few animals are reported entangled each year,” said species conservation manager Tonya Wimmer with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Atlantic chapter. “This means that entanglements are happening more often than is reported and therefore efforts need to focus on preventing entanglements from occurring.”

And how valiant these efforts have been, in particular among lobster fishermen of Nova Scotia’s south shore, who have adopted voluntary measures to avoid right whale entanglement. With a population so dangerously small, the death of any single right whale can be considered a tragedy. Alternatively, all fishermen taking steps to avoid entanglement are heroes in their own right.

With a population so dangerously small, the death of any single right whale can be considered a tragedy.

Another threat to the right whale’s recovery are collisions with passing ships. This is a widespread problem among the great whales, who can be seriously injured or killed when visiting the surface to breathe or feed along popular shipping lanes. It’s believed most of these collisions go unreported, so the extent of this threat is difficult to quantify, but it’s likely significant.

In 2003, shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were shifted to avoid the right whale’s popular feeding grounds, reducing collisions by an estimated 80 per cent. Such collisions are still an issue elsewhere in Canada and the United States, but it’s an obstacle which can be overcome.

An additional barrier to right whale recovery, both underappreciated and poorly understood, is noise pollution. Underwater noise from seismic testing and to a lesser extent ship traffic, could have a host of unintended consequences for marine life in general, disrupting right whale communication, hunting, predator avoidance and navigation. There’s mounting evidence that seismic testing, used for offshore oil and gas exploration, could frighten certain species away from their critical feeding grounds.

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These lingering threats, combined with a low calving rate, forced experts to wonder if it was too late to save the North Atlantic right whale population, which in the year 2000 only produced a single calf. Since then, however, these gentle giants have given us reason to hope. From 2001-2010, 238 baby right whales have been added to this struggling population, an average of 23 calves a year. Although the right whales of Europe and western Canada have little cause to be optimistic, Atlantic Canada has a fighting chance to save its right whales.

There are more words in this column than there are right whales in the North Atlantic Ocean, possibly the entire northern hemisphere. There is a good deal of work yet to be done on behalf of this species, but the right whales themselves have made every indication they’re willing to work with us. Are we prepared to do our part?

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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