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The Fight to Save North Atlantic Right Whale

Updated: 2 days ago

The North Atlantic right whale got its name for being the “right whale” to hunt during the whaling era. Today, there are only 336 remaining in the world.


While commercial whaling of the species in Canada ended in 1935, the right whale has been classified as endangered since 1980.


The species’ low reproductive rate is one explanation for its struggle to repopulate provided by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Increased ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are another.


Climate change is also playing a role, says Alyssa Wile, a data and office assistant for Ocean Alliance, a non-profit organization in Massachusetts specializing in whale research and conservation.


“Whales are having to locate new forging habitats because the environment is changing, the ocean temperatures are changing, [and] prey availability is also changing,” she explains, “they're coming into contact with more vessels and they're also co-habiting shipping lanes.”


Researchers are now seeking solutions to prevent their functional extinction by 2035, says Wile.  


She also adds that the extinction of the right whale will impact the ecosystem. “As they feed, they transfer nutrients from their fecal plume into the environment to fertilize phytoplankton, which works itself up the food chain helping productivity in the fisheries,” she explains.


Despite the intrinsic and ecologic value at stake, Wile says she wants to focus on solutions.


Since 2013, Ocean Alliance has been experimenting with drones to collect data from whales. “We're able to observe these animals from a great distance, collect data from them without them really even knowing that we're there,” Wile says.


The SnotBot drone, specifically, allows researchers to collect exhaled particles, or “snot,” from the whales to better assess their health, she explains. “From those samples, we're able to look at hormones like cortisol, pregnancy hormones. We're also able to look at DNA and microbiome.”


Ocean Alliance wants to create a baseline profile for a healthy whale, she says. Though it is still too early to assess the data, Wile believes that this new approach will greatly help the scientific community study marine life.


Data collection goes hand-in-hand with the pre-existing government measures, explains Dr. Olga Koubrak who specializes in international environmental law.


In her research, Koubrak explores the government’s “cutting-edge system” to protect the right whales.


“They adapted the management measure to accommodate for the fact that the whales are shifting their usage of the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Koubrak explains in an interview.


Under the Fisheries Act, the government regularly inspects and closes sections, or “grids,” to fishing in the gulf, when a whale is spotted, she says. Such closures can last two weeks or a full season.


Koubrak also adds that similar measures regulate the speed of ships. “By using this combination of temporary and permanent closures, they're able to minimize the potential of whales getting entangled into gear,” she explains.


Since 2020, no deaths of the right whale have been reported in Canadian waters. However, its overall population size is still on a 2.3 per cent decline, according to Oceana, a North American non-profit ocean conservation organization.


While Fisheries and Oceans Canada declined an interview, they have recently implemented new measures to protect the species.

A previous version of this article stated that Ocean Alliance was located in Maine. That statement was incorrect. The Intel regrets this error.

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