Guest Column: Right Whale Deaths Trigger a Need for Action

John Bullard is the director of the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. He retires from his position this month.

Since April 2017, 17 North Atlantic right whales have been observed dead in both U.S. and Canadian waters, a nearly 4% loss of the population. A study published in September by NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center and New England Aquarium researchers confirmed that the right whale population has been declining since 2010, down to an estimated 451 whales in 2016. Calving rates have also declined, with only five calves born last winter. In addition, New England Aquarium researchers report that 85% of right whales have entanglement scars. The number of right whales with entanglement scars has gone up every year for the past several decades. In 2017, we observed nine right whales and 23 humpback whales alive and entangled in both the U.S. and Canada.

Over the past two decades, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team has worked to reduce entanglements of right, humpback, and fin whales on the U.S. East Coast. This work has included eliminating nearly 30,000 miles of rope from the water column and removing fishing gear from 32,000 square nautical miles of the ocean through seasonal fixed gear closures. Due in part to the Team’s work, we saw steady population growth among right whales from about 270 right whales in 1990 to about 480 in 2010. We now know that, despite the Team’s best efforts and the sacrifices made by fishermen affected by the regulations, this may not be enough.

 At NOAA Fisheries, we have been working closely with our colleagues in Canada to collaborate on science and management so we can address this problem together. Our Canadian colleagues understand the urgent need to prevent these events from happening again. They are working on strategies to minimize the risk of both fishing gear and ships to right whales in Canadian waters in 2018.

However, it is up to all of us, and despite the challenges that right whales currently face, I firmly believe in the Team’s ability to help solve this problem. Building on the steps we have taken in the past, the Team must now take up the very challenging task of figuring out the next steps we need to take to save this species from extinction.

The Team met by webinar on November 30, 2017 to review the latest serious injury and mortality data for right, humpback, and fin whales, as it does each November. During that meeting, we announced the formation of two new subgroups that will follow up on possible solutions proposed previously by Team members and other scientists. The two new subgroups will begin working in January 2018 focusing on very specific topics. Subgroup 1 will investigate the feasibility of using whale release rope (rope with a 1,700 pound breaking strength) and alternative approaches to gear marking; and
Subgroup 2 will investigate the feasibility of ropeless fishing.

At this point, these subgroups are focused on feasibility; we are not endorsing either of these tools upfront. However, we need to investigate these options further so that the Team can make an informed decision on the feasibility of these techniques given current technology. As always, we encourage you to contact your Team representative or NOAA Fisheries with any additional ideas for reducing entanglements.

Some guiding questions for these subgroups are:

  • What is the current availability of these technologies?
  • What are the current costs?
  • Are there geographic locations where these technologies would work well and, conversely, areas where they would not work?
  • In what areas would additional research help inform management?

I have asked for 10 to 12 Team members to volunteer for each subgroup to work on answering these and other questions. To be successful, we believe that fishermen need to be active participants on these subgroups. While the work of the subgroups will be done by Team members, we are planning opportunities to ensure that non-Team members can contribute.  The best place to start is with your Team representative. Given the urgency of the situation, we would like the subgroups to provide reports on the feasibility of these options within the next six to nine months. Once the subgroups have completed their work, we will convene the full Team for a meeting in the third quarter of 2018 to discuss the subgroups’ findings.

I have confidence that the Team can find solutions to this conservation challenge and although I will have retired and will not be on hand to help implement the solutions they develop, I look forward to seeing how the Team works together to help this critically endangered species begin its road to recovery once again.