By Jim O’Connell
Human-caused right whale deaths have suddenly, in sync with a plummeting whale birthrate, put the right whale on the path to extinction.
Why their birthrate has declined since a tremendous surge in 2000-2009, from 350 to 500, is unknown. It hit bottom in 2018 when no calves were born. Then came a ray of hope in 2019 when seven calves were born. The birthrate has been as high as 40 calves in one year. But for some unknown reason, in 2010, the whales’ birthrate started to decline. Now human-caused deaths seem significant when you consider only 12 calves were born in the past three years and we killed 30. That is a birthrate of -18. That said, the three years prior, 2014, 2015 and 2016, you would have found 42 calves, so we would be ahead by 24.
There is the simple answer to halt the march towards extinction. We can stop the majority of the anthropogenic whale deaths with a simple cruise ship lane modification between Prince Edward Island (PEI) and the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula.
Prior to 2007, ships were almost solely responsible for right whale deaths, but fishing line entanglement deaths have increased since 2008. However, data from the past three years indicate many more ship-strike deaths than entanglement deaths. The entanglement deaths and a dramatic increase in ship-strike deaths coincide with the sudden migration of the whales up into the Gulf of St. Lawrence right where the crab fishermen, who use heavier rope and traps, are a big problem. Immediate results are needed at this juncture. We cannot wait 10 years to perfect a better mousetrap, otherwise known as the $2,000 ropeless lobster trap with a $2,000 radio sender unit. That is the direction environmental and animal protection organizations are steering the effort.
The right whale is on its way to extinction today, so the time to act is now. There is something way off with all these ship-strike results in an area only frequented by the cruise lines. Cruise ships are responsible for the majority of right whale deaths. This becomes obvious after looking at the facts surrounding this issue.
You have a berthing pier built in Charlottetown on PEI in 2007. They are invested in the cruise industry. They are hooked. The cruise ships developed a cruise lane right through the middle of what was to become the right whales’ feeding grounds when they first started using PEI as a port of call.
In 2015, the right whales discovered the copepod bloom in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – a massive amount of copepods right under the cruise lane. The whales have continued to find these copepods in the same general area every year now since 2015. Copepods feed at the surface at night so the right whales that surface to feed on their favorite food are sitting ducks for the cruise ships moving through to get their customers to Quebec City.
In 2015, three whales were found dead, and the cause of death was not determined. No necropsy was done and apparently the whales were free of obvious gear. That year, only three undetermined whale deaths were reported, and those were very possibly from cruise ships.
In 2017, two entanglement deaths were found by necropsy and four ship strikes were determined by necropsy; however, there were six undetermined deaths. If the ratio of 2:1 holds, then eight died from ship strikes and four from entanglements. But the fact that the six undetermined whale deaths were not reported as entangled in rope may indicate 10 whales were killed by cruise ships. Strange as it seems, there is no ship traffic other than cruise ships in the whale feeding grounds. The whales’ main diet is copepods, which eat fecal matter that cruise ships serve at a rate of 55 gallons of black water sewage a minute. It’s gourmet black water for the copepods. That, in effect, is chumming the cruise lane for right whales. Oceanographers call it marine snow.
If you figure the ratio of necropsied whales done in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that year held true for all the undetermined whale deaths, then you would have the possibility of saving 18 ship-struck whales in just the past three years. Eighteen subtracted from the 30 total deaths for those three years would leave 12 anthropogenic deaths. Consider the 12 births in that three-year period and you’re even.
Holland American out of Boston, owned by Carnival, ran three ships through the feeding area. In 2017, it was the Maasdam and the Veendam making 15 passes at night when the whales were feeding. In 2019, it was the Zaandam making 12 passes and the AIDAvita making three more. Now it appears from their advertising brochures that the cruise lines shifted their course a little farther north after the 2017 disaster and there were no deaths in 2018. Then the whales shifted a little farther north in 2019 and once again were sitting ducks. The cruise lines should have decided to avoid that general area, but it was a fuel savings of approximately $16,000 in for each visit. They need to go east of the Magdalen Islands and head north to the main shipping lane where very few whales are sighted.
And there you have it – saved from extinction!
Now shut down the crab fishery from June to mid-July and we would have seen an increase of nearly 12 new right whales in the past three years.
Jim O’Connell lives in Bar Harbor.