At the bed of whales

This large North Atlantic mammal is endangered.

The right whale population has been declining since 2010. There are only 336 individuals left. © NOAA News Archive

The right whale population has been declining since 2010. There are only 336 individuals left. © NOAA News Archive

Published on 02.05.2022

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

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Reserve ” After hours at sea and some false hopes, here they are: three critically endangered North Atlantic right whales appear in front of a research vessel in a bay near Boston in the northeastern United States. Captain petrel Turns off the engine and the three marine biologists are busy taking notes and photographs to identify and track the whales and their injuries. Work is needed to protect this species, which, according to experts, there are only 336 individuals left.

Destroyed by now banned whalers, the right whale, or right whale, of the North Atlantic remains today under the threat of collisions with boats and fishing nets. This species of large marine mammal, twenty meters long and weighing 70 tons, is even more endangered than tigers or black rhinos.

Population decline

“Unfortunately, their population has been declining since 2010,” explains Christy Hudak, head of the Coastal Research Center based in Provincetown, the fishing port in Massachusetts where the explorers’ boat left.

Using a small plane and drones equipped with cameras launched from a second boat, these scientists are trying to trace the playback Eubalaena icy, their Latin name. Because the new rules on the speed of ships in protected areas or on fishing nets did not calm them down. Climate change, by warming the waters of the North Atlantic, is depleting the stocks of small crustaceans, Calanus finmarchicusone of the constituent elements of plankton and necessary for the diet of whales.

According to David Leist, author of a book on the subject, the species numbered up to 20,000 prior to the start of large-scale fisheries. It was then destroyed in the early 20th century. A rise in births in the early 2000s led to a peak of 483 animals in 2010, but that figure, which has since fallen, plummeted in 2017 due to the accumulation of deaths. “Fourteen right whales died in a very short time when they moved into St. Lawrence Bay, where they rarely go and where they were hit hard by a crab,” says Charles Mayo, founder of a research center on the coast.

Climate change appears to be the reason for this shift in their foraging ranges due to lack of sufficient prey. And because whales are already so rare, even a few deaths could be enough to trigger a dangerous decline in the species.

These whales, the third largest in the marine kingdom, live as long as humans, sometimes up to a century. Squat and black, they differ in that they do not have a dorsal fin and are adorned with calluses on their heads covered with tiny crustaceans called “whale lice” that live in apparent symbiosis with their hosts.

New technologies

Alerted by colleagues who had flown over the area, the researchers found new whales, including a calf playing to imitate its mother, and then a group of cetaceans approaching the surface to socialize. During this type of gathering, Christy Hudak explains, the whales “roll around on their own, touching others. The main purpose is reproduction, but it is also a matter of interaction with other whales.

The sea trip will allow watching ten whales, including two mothers with calves, as well as a socialization group. The survival of the species is far from guaranteed, but researchers allow themselves to hope. New technologies aim to reduce entanglement in fishing nets by making ropes more brittle or by developing traps that can be brought to the surface by remote control without line.

Better acoustical detection of whales could also allow quick response to their presence by establishing speed limit zones for boats. But it’s vital, Christy Hudak emphasizes, to raise awareness and build public support to protect “these incredible creatures.”


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