Subject: Info: Right Whale, A Species Fails to Recover (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Wed, 10 Apr 1996 08:01:54 -0400 (EDT)

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Date: Wed, 10 Apr 96 03:29:00 UTC 0000
Subject: A Species Fails to Recover

A Species Fails to Recover

April 9, 1996


   c.1996 N.Y. Times News Service

   Now, in early springtime, is when female northern right whales and their
newborns migrate northward from calving grounds off Florida and Georgia to
around Cape Cod, Mass., taking about a month for the journey. It has been a
good season for baby making among the northern rights. Scientists have sighted
20 calves, a record after years of falling counts. Only 320 or so of the
behemoths now ply the North Atlantic, and a high rate of reproduction is seen
as critical to the comeback of these big mammals, once hunted to near
extinction and now the most endangered of the great whales.

   But despite more than a half century of protection, as well as sustained
federal and private conservation efforts, the 55-foot, black and gray whales
are failing to rally and their population remains dangerously low, baffling
scientists and alarming environmentalists.

   Six whales have died so far this year, including three calves, the highest
number of deaths on record for so short a period. Part of the problem is that
the lumbering giants swim through one of the nation's busiest sea lanes for
commercial shipping and naval maneuvers, at times getting hit. Other whales get
entangled in fishing gear.

   But scientists say the roots of the problem go beyond such incidents and are
increasingly a grim mystery, prompting a redoubling of protective efforts and
detective work.

   "We don't know what's going on," Scott D. Kraus, chief scientist at the New
England Aquarium in Boston, the main research group working to save the animal,
said in an interview. "It gets nerve-racking."

   Environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the International Wildlife
Coalition, recently contended that Navy war games off Georgia and Florida with
five-inch guns and 500-pound bombs were probably responsible for many of the
recent deaths.

   But scientists, while happy to question Navy practices, often say that what
causes the deaths is extremely murky. Right whales dying for any reason,
natural or unnatural, float on the surface of the sea, their carcasses
vulnerable to damage from passing ships and military maneuvers and often making
cause and effect very difficult to disentangle.

   "I fear our faddishness," said Charles Mayo, a senior scientist at the
Center for Coastal Studies, a private group in Provincetown, Mass., on Cape
Cod, that studies whales. "We're all so desperate to find out what's going on.
We have to be careful not to overlook the less conspicuous things. Changes in
the coastal ecosystem concern me a great deal - no blood, no carcasses, just
silent gasps.

   "Something is happening. And given the status of the northern right as
severely endangered, everything is guilty until proven innocent."

   The past and current dangers confronting Eubalaena glacialis, the North
Atlantic right whale, stem to a significant degree from its anatomy. The
animal, to put it bluntly, is fat, with blubber making up about 40 percent of
its body weight, more than virtually any other whale. It is a slow swimmer,
seemingly unable to hit speeds over five knots.

   The thick layer of blubber keeps the right whale afloat when it dies; most
other whales quickly sink. And because of its inherent buoyancy, the whale also
tends to rest, feed, court and mate at or near the surface.

   For centuries, such attributes made the mammal the "right" whale to hunt and
kill - thus its common name. The attraction was mainly its oil, rendered from
fat and used as lamp fuel and lubricants and eventually as an ingredient in
soaps and paints. The baleen, or whalebone, was strong and flexible and used to
make such things as whips and corset stays. Adding to its allure, the right
whale tended to dwell near coasts, making it easy prey. It was the first of the
large whales to be commercially hunted.

   Starting a millennium or so ago, the species was pursued on a large scale,
at first by Basque whalers around the Bay of Biscay. As that population of
whales withered and knowledge of the world's seas grew, hunting shifted to the
western North Atlantic and then the Pacific.

   A single whale could yield as much as 90 barrels of oil and 1,200 pounds of
baleen. One kill could pay for an entire voyage. Everything else was pure

   By 1935, the species had declined to such low numbers that the League of
Nations, fearing the whale would become extinct, was able to talk most nations
into giving up the hunt.

   Since then, the animal's status has remained shaky because of an enigmatic
mix of human and natural factors. The main suspects are ship collisions,
entanglement in fishing gear and habitat decline in feeding areas. The
toothless mammals are skimmers of the sea, feeding mainly on dense swarms of
copepods, which are tiny crustaceans the size of a matchhead.

   Federal and private efforts to save the whale increased in the 1970s and
1980s and generally focused on trying to achieve a better understanding the
animal'shabitat and habits. Kraus of the New England Aquarium pioneered surveys
at sea and learned to tell individuals apart, creating a catalogue of
photographs. Particular right whales bear distinctive calluses of hardened
skin, as well as characteristic scars and coloration.

   It turned out that the main surviving herd of northern right whales migrates
along the East Coast. In summer, the animals frequent the Bay of Fundy, moving
south around Cape Cod in the fall and winter. Pregnant females, Kraus and his
colleagues discovered, travel in the winter to warm, shallow areas off Georgia
and northern Florida to give birth to their young. In spring, the migration
route is reversed.

Babies are up to 15 feet long at birth and weigh almost a ton. Mothers nurse
the calves for about a year. This long period of lactation is hard on the
ational Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, declared an area off the Georgia and north Florida coast as a
critical right-whale habitat.

   Aerial surveys of the area were stepped up, as were warnings of whale
movements to mariners in the hopes of avoiding collisions. And the federal
budget for right-whale research nearly quadrupled, going from $220,000 in 1992
to $850,000 this fiscal year, aided by the Clinton administration's general
support of ecological studnexpectedly soared, the latter events set off alarm
bells throughout Washington.

   "We usually get one or two deaths a year," said Michael Payne, a right-whale
protection expert at the national fisheries service. "Now we have six, and the
year just started. That's a problem - big time."

   One of the recent deaths, that of a 44-foot adult, occurred at Cape Cod.
More ominously, the other five were near the southern calving grounds. Of the
three calves that died, one apparently had genetic defects, ongist at the
University of Miami, said of the hemorrhaging in a report to the national
fisheries service.

   Criss-crossing the calving ground are ships from large commercial ports like
Brunswick, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., as well as from major Navy
installations like Mayport in Florida and Kings Bay in Georgia, the East Coast
home of the Trident submarines. Military traffic in the region is estimated at
about one-tenth of the total.

   The unusual spate of deaths occurred around February, when the Naangered
whale deaths linked to U.S. Navy," a Greenpeace news release charged on March

   Twenty-one members of Congress, all Democrats except for one Republican,
wrote Defense Secretary William J. Perry on March 19 to lobby for stepped-up
safeguards, including extended aerial surveys. "Special caution must be
exercised by all parties," they said, "given the extremely precarios and is
paying for an extension of the aerial surveys off Florida and Georgia until
biologists judge that the new calves and mothers have migrated substantially to
the north. The surveys are conducted by the New England Aquarium in small

   In addition, Navy aircraft and helicopter pilots in the area have been
ordered to search for right whales and report their locations as an aid to
avoiding collisions.

   "The Navy is committed to serving as a responsible steward of the marine
environment andhe females apparently travel more extensively while giving birth
than originally thought, with whales increasingly sighted outside the critical
habitat. Federal officials are now considering an expansion of the zone.

   "It's become clear that the whales move freely beyond that area," said Chris
Slay, director of aerial surveys and southeastern research for the New England
Aquari  Experts also worry that inbreeding among the small population of
remaining whales is reducing their vigor and making them more vulnerable to
birth and genetic defects.

   For the moment, the surviving calves from this birthing season are to be
monitored very carefully as they migrate northward with their mothers. With
luck, scientists say, new clues will eventually emerge in the riddle of how to
save the rarest of the great whales.

   "This is the only whale species we might lose in our lifetimes," said Kraus
of the New England Aquarium. "They're extremely vulnerable to things we don't
understand. And they're really dumb about ships. That's the one thing we
understand and can do something about."