The Plight Of The North Atlantic Right Whale
Every year, Earth Day is a reminder that we share this planet with many other species, large and small. And every year, humans have to reckon with the impact we have on those species—like the recent case of the disappearing North Atlantic Right Whale.
Experts estimate there are fewer than 400 right whales living off the coast of the North Atlantic. Less than 90 are reproductive age females. Their declining population and poor birth rate can be largely explained by one thing: humans. Boat strikes and entanglements in lobster fishing gear accounted for nearly two thirds of right whale deaths in the last decade—and new research suggests those deaths are being undercounted.
A new documentary called “Entangled,” by Boston Globe reporter and filmmaker David Abel, gives us a glimpse of what these encounters are doing to right whales, introducing a slew of researchers, conservationists, lobstermen, lawmakers and politicians who are tangled up in the effort to save the species from extinction. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a Senior Scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies, and Melanie White, a project manager for the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute—both featured in the film—join Ira to discuss the tragic story of the right whales, and the simple, high-tech solution that is getting little attention and even less research funding.
Plus, Massachusetts implemented a nearly state-wide ban on lobster fishing in all state waters from February through early May, giving right whales an opportunity to feed unencumbered in Cape Cod Bay as they migrate. The ban also gives local scientists an opportunity to monitor the pods, tracking which whales have returned, and how they’re fairing. WCAI environment reporter Eve Zuckoff shares thoughts on her recent journey out into the bay with right whale scientists.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Charles “Stormy” Mayo is a senior scientist and Director of Research for the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Melanie White is the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Project Manager at the Clearwater Marine Research Institute in Clearwater, Florida.
Eve Zuckoff is an environment reporter at WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Every year, Earth Day is a reminder that we share this planet with so many species, big and small. And perhaps nowhere is there a more classic case of us versus them than in the story of the North Atlantic right whale.
Experts estimate there are less than 400 right whales living off the coast of the North Atlantic. Of those that are left, less than a quarter are able to give birth to new calves. Their declining population, poor birthrate, can be largely explained by one thing– humans. Boat strikes and entanglement in lobster fishing gear account for nearly 2/3 of the right whale deaths in the last decade. And new research suggests those deaths are being undercounted.
A new documentary, Entangled, by Boston Globe reporter and filmmaker David Abel gives us a glimpse of what these encounters are doing to the population of right whales and introduces us to the slew of researchers, conservationists, lobstermen, lawmakers, politicians tangled up in the effort to save the species from extinction.
– Despite all of the efforts that have gone on, entanglement has got worse. In the last 16 years, we’ve killed 70 right whales. And entanglement was the primary problem.
IRA FLATOW: Joining me to talk more about it are two people featured in the documentary. Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist and director of research at the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies. Melanie White, North Atlantic right whale conservation project manager at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.
MELANIE WHITE: Thank you for having us.
STORMY MAYO: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Stormy, let me begin with you. In the film, you’re featured as one of the people who works to disentangle whales from these lobster nets. You said you came up with the official method of doing this. How is this done?
STORMY MAYO: When we started, David Mattila and I were offshore, and we ran into– not literally, but figuratively– a whale we knew well. It was tangled up in nets. We were trying to figure out how to stop the whale, because it was on long dives, and actually cut the animal free. And on that memorable day, my father, who was aboard the boat and had hunted pilot whales, said, keg him, keg him. And nobody knew what that meant except for me, and that was use a keg at the end of a rope.
We threw a grapple into the tangling nets. We used a big fisherman’s float. And it succeeded in stopping the whale, and we got it free. And that started our efforts that now are being used in lots of locations in both hemispheres. First, slow the whale down, and then, cut the whale free.
IRA FLATOW: I know that you’re a native of Provincetown, Massachusetts. That’s at the tip of Cape Cod Bay, where these whales appear every spring. Can you tell us, how has the story of these whales changed over the last several decades?
STORMY MAYO: Well, in the beginning, when I started was back in the middle ’80s. And at that time, not much was known about them. They still are mysteries.
But unfortunately, over that period of time, in the last several decades, there’s been two situations that conspire to bring this animal very close to extinction. One is that the calving rate, the birth rate, is now quite low. The death rate is going up. And that usually, from what we know, is from entanglement in fishing gear and being hit, struck by ships. And the combination of the two mortalities and the low birthing rate means that the population is now, over these last decades, has gone into a negative pattern, with an estimated population right now of around 360 animals remaining and a declining trajectory. So it’s not looking good.
IRA FLATOW: Melanie, as right whales migrate down the coast to their calving grounds off of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, that’s where you come in. Tell us about what you do.
MELANIE WHITE: Yes. So I am the supervisor for three of the four aerial survey teams down on the calving grounds. So anywhere from December through mid-April, survey teams are taking to the sky off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to try to find right whales. It is the only known calving grounds for this species. And we are hoping to see adult females come down and give birth to their live young.
The number one goal is to see who is giving birth. We can individually identify the right whales. And we will, in real time, in the planes that we fly, figure out who we have. So we have boat-based teams traveling along with the aircrafts so that they, too, can do some additional work when we spot right whales on their calving grounds.
IRA FLATOW: So one of the issues that you are trying to understand is the birth rate. Is the birth rate high enough in order to keep up the population?
MELANIE WHITE: Unfortunately, no. This season, it was really exciting that, currently, 17 mother-calf pairs were sighted throughout the calving season. But that’s not a high enough number for these whales to successfully be able to continue that population. As Stormy mentioned, the birth rate is just too low. We need these calving numbers to be well in the 20s to have a chance of these animals being able to survive in the future.
You know, 17 sounds like a great number. That’s up from 10 from the 2020 season. But unfortunately, it still isn’t where it needs to be.
IRA FLATOW: And three calves have died so far this year. Is that correct? One struck by a vessel off of the Florida coast?
MELANIE WHITE: That’s correct. Unfortunately, the major problems for these whales are human-related activities. And so not only are entanglements in fishing gear a very big problem, but also vessel strikes. And there was a calf that washed up ashore in St. Augustine in February, and it was determined the cause of death was consistent with a vessel strike.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Stormy, when you confront the lobster fishermen with the fact that their lines are entangling the whales and causing their deaths, what do the lobster fishermen have to say about this?
STORMY MAYO: Well, my family were fishermen back into the 1600s, so they and the lobstermen understandably say, please don’t shut us down. On the other hand, fishermen share the ocean. So they have a sensitivity to the story of right whales. And they are in many cases working as well as they can with developing new methods.
So they’re working in that direction. But the fishermen understandably do not want to be told to not fish in order to protect right whales. So it’s a difficult scene and not one that has been easy to solve over the last decades.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that solution that you mentioned. The most obvious solution to this problem to a techie person like me would be to get rid of the fishing lines. And the film shows that people have been working on technology for ropeless fishing nets.
It features a really interesting solution that is being tested. A deflated airbag is placed on the lobster trap. It’s lowered into the water. And when it’s time to bring it to the surface, an audio tone is sent into the water, inflating the bag. Up pops the trap to the surface.
And it seems to work. What could be wrong with this to the fishermen? Why would they not be in favor of this?
STORMY MAYO: In the beginning, as we looked at that, that seemed like an obvious solution. And it, eventually, I think, will work, though if you listen to the fishermen, who obviously spend their lives at sea and understand the problems, the buoys and rope we see that are sort of characteristic of the coastal New England waters have always been used to warn other fishermen that your gear is there, and they should avoid that area and go to a different place. And right now, part of the issue is trying to figure out how to allow the fishing industry to know where the gear on the bottom is, where the traps that catch lobsters and crabs are to be found.
IRA FLATOW: You know, you have MIT around the corner. With a bunch of smart folks there, you would think in the 21st century, you could spend a little federal research money and find a high-tech solution that could be found for this 400-year-old technology that they’re using now.
STORMY MAYO: Yeah, well, I will also say on behalf of my fishing family, fishermen are traditionalists. And I think to some degree, that plays into it all. But the fishermen are understanding of the plight of the right whale, and they are collaborating. And they’re collaborating with groups like MIT to figure out how to solve some of the problems. And it will happen, but we hope it happens faster than it has been.
IRA FLATOW: Well, they were able to adopt GPS. I’m sure they all have those on their boats, and even have motors, which they didn’t used to have back in the day 100 years ago. They adopted that. It’s not so difficult.
All right, let’s move on, because I agree with you– there is a solution to this, it sounds like. And in fact, this year Massachusetts implemented a nearly statewide ban on lobster fishing in all state waters from February through early May, giving right whales an opportunity to feed unencumbered in Cape Cod Bay as they migrate further northward. The ban also gives local scientists an opportunity to monitor the pods to track which whales have returned and how they’re faring. WCAI environment reporter Eve Zuckoff traveled out into the bay with one of these research teams this past weekend, and she’s here to talk more about it with us. Hi, Eve.
EVE ZUCKOFF: Hi there, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: So where do things stand right now in Cape Cod Bay? How are the whales doing? How many of them are there? Give us a little thumbnail sketch, if you will.
EVE ZUCKOFF: Yeah, well, there have been 180 whales seen in Cape Cod Bay this season, which is about half the population. Just last week, 67 right whales were seen south of Cape Cod Bay. And they’re just kind of a mystery like that.
So you know, they matriculate out of the area end of April, following their food source, these kind of reddish brown plankton known as copepods. And then there are teams of people taking photos of these whales on boats and from planes and drones, and those images are compiled into this massive, decades-old catalog maintained by scientists who put together profiles of the whales. So over time, they can figure out these whales are shifting their movements north, or they can figure out a female has given birth, or a juvenile is faring well or poorly with its body condition.
To help themselves along the way, they also give the whales little nicknames, so there’s, like, Millipede, who’s named for propeller scars on her back that look like kind of little insects. There’s Cottontail, Boomerang, Snow Cone. My recent favorite is Garlic. And I know these names make them sound kind of cute and fluffy, but these animals can weigh up to 70 tons. They’re pretty massive.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So Eve, how do these researchers collect data from a boat in the bay there?
EVE ZUCKOFF: Yeah, so when I went out with right whale researcher scientist named Michael Moore just last week, he used a drone rigged up with a camera, actually. So what happens is another scientist– wearing a helmet for safety precautions– stood at the bow of the boat holding a drone above her head. And then Moore launches it out of her hands 200 feet into the air.
And then what he does is, once the drone is in the air, he handles the controls for the drone, kind of blindly moving it left and right, while this second scientist on the bow looks down at an iPad screen and directs him to get the whale in the middle of the frame. So she’d call out, left, left, left, right, forward, forward, forward.
– Right, right, right. This is a great shot.
EVE ZUCKOFF: I mean, it sounds chaotic, but they were completely in sync. And it was really, actually, incredible to watch.
IRA FLATOW: We haven’t talked specifically about what these entanglements look like yet.
EVE ZUCKOFF: That’s right. The way they get entangled is kind because of the way the whales feed. So they move through the water with their mouths open, sucking up their little plankton, filtering it out. And scientists believe what happens is that a whale will come across a rope in the water that kind of gets stuck in their baleen.
And it’s kind of like really bothersome floss, so the whale will try to spin to shed the rope. But what they can do is get entangled even worse. So the rope wraps around their flippers, their tails. It clamps their mouths shut so that over time they can starve or suffer infections.
And I spoke to scientist Michael Moore, who described the entanglement of a whale named 2030. And this whale was found with a gillnet stretching over its back and wrapped around both flippers.
– By the time it had died, the net had dissected the blubber off its back, so there was this huge absence of blubber for maybe 10 feet across the midline of its back.
EVE ZUCKOFF: Moore says, if a dog walked into a downtown area with the disturbing, painful injuries that these whales still suffer, there would be national legislation and millions of dollars set aside to save them the very next week.
IRA FLATOW: So why isn’t that money coming?
EVE ZUCKOFF: It’s hard to really nail that answer down. There is some legislation. A congressman from Massachusetts named Seth Moulton is working on the Save the Whales Act, which is looking to get some money really dedicated to these whales.
But I spoke to one right whale researcher– he basically spends nights and weekends trying to get funding for ropeless fishing, which is kind of insane to think about. And right now, the money is coming from, like, grants from Sea World. I mean, it’s not coming in mass in a meaningful way from the federal government.
And in my reporting, honestly, I have not been able to nail down exactly why the political will isn’t quite there to get that funding. But a lot of it has to do with the interests of fishermen, who are really resistant to ropeless fishing. I mean, I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had where ropeless fishing comes up unprompted as just something where fishermen say, it’s not safe. I don’t trust it. I don’t even want to test it.
I mean, there’s willingness among some of them. But others are really opposed. They don’t see it working here.
IRA FLATOW: So Melanie, things don’t look like they’re heading in a good direction. The whale population is going down, and we’re going to reach a tipping point.
MELANIE WHITE: You know, we’re heading down a path that does not look good. But we’re not at that crossroad yet. And we just need that calf production rate to be at a much higher number.
I’m always told I am the eternal optimist, which you have to be. Every season provides its own new excitement. And so, you know, already looking forward to next season as this season for the calving grounds wrap up. And know that there is a lot of susceptibility that these whales are going to encounter between now and next winter. And again, researchers up and down the East Coast are working as hard as we can to keep these whales safe so that those numbers can increase and we can help to decrease that mortality rate.
STORMY MAYO: I might add that looming over this entire story is the issue of climate change, although as you know from the climate change story, when you try to figure out what the biological reflections of it are, you don’t always get good answers. But there are strong indications that the population is responding to a changed ecosystem, because it’s changing where the whales go. And they’re leaving places where there’s protection for them, and they’re moving into places where they are no longer protected.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll keep watching this story. It’s really an interesting and timely story, and a sad story for everyone involved. I want to thank my guests– Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist and director of research at the Center for Coastal Studies, Melanie White, North Atlantic right whale conservation project manager at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, Eve Zuckoff, environmental reporter for WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.