Two years ago I reported several times on the unprecedented deaths of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Twelve were found dead over the course of that summer, mostly from ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. This year is not much better. So far, six whales have been found dead, four of whom were breeding females. These losses are devastating for such an endangered population.
Again, the causes seem to be entanglements and ship strikes. Right whales have moved north in search of food as the north Atlantic Ocean waters get warmer and their cold-water prey moves north. In recent years they have appeared more often in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is heavily fished and heavily trafficked by ships moving in and out of the St. Lawrence seaway. It is not at all clear what can be done about any of this. I think many of us who love right whales and have been trying to protect them and educate others about them are feeling pretty powerless right now. Decades of protection work are falling apart because global heating is forcing the whales to leave protected areas and move into more dangerous areas.
These whales do not have decades more to wait for us to get it right. Slower ship speeds and altered shipping lanes and ropeless fishing trap technology can help, but I still maintain that the only solution is a wholesale change in human behavior and the human economy that demands limitless growth and global shipping and massive consumption of fossil fuels. But again, social change on that level would normally take generations, and the right whales do not have that kind of time. We haven’t given up, but the future of the North Atlantic right whale is looking very bleak right now.
You can follow this unfolding story in the gulf through the New England Aquarium’s right whale research team twitter feed.