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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Right Whales in Trouble

Air Date: Week of

The world's most endangered whale, the Northern Right Whale, spends much of its life off the coast of the eastern seaboard. Many scientists suspect the right whales' love of coastal waters has lead to a stagnation of its small population. Humans inhabit these coastal waters too, with their oil tankers, naval vessels and fishing boats. The human threat to right whales has become so severe that a federal judge has ordered the state of Massachusetts to prohibit certain types of fishing gear or face a total fishing ban. But, as Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports, few people believe such a ban would actually improve the whale's plight.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The world's most endangered whale, the northern right whale, got its name from its desirability to whalers. The right whale is so loaded with blubber that it floated when killed, and yielded a high amount of oil, so it was the right whale to hunt. The northern right whale was hunted to the brink of extinction and now there are fewer than 400 left. Today's threats come from collisions with ships, and entanglement with fishing nets. The problem has become so severe that a Federal judge has ordered the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to prohibit certain types of fishing gear or face a total fishing ban. But as Patrick Cox of member station WBUR in Boston reports, few people believe such a plan would actually improve the whale's plight.

(Water slapping on the side of a boat)

COX: The existence of the northern right whale is so fragile that the only people legally permitted within 500 yards of the animals are researchers, like this boatload from the Boston Aquarium.

HAMILTON: How far do you think it is, Liz?

LIZ: Half mile.

HAMILTON: Twenty minutes.

(A motor runs)

COX: Today the researchers get a surprise when they move in closer to the whale they've sighted, and it comes up for air.

(Blowhole spouts)

HAMILTON: Now that's our new mom! See that big accessory?

LIZ: Yes. Yes.

COX: This right whale is an average size, about 55 feet long and weighing 70 tons. It spouts air several feet from its blow ports in the V-shaped pattern distinctive to right whales. Whale specialist Philip Hamilton explains why his crew is so excited.

HAMILTON: This is a female that we saw in the southeast, and we've never seen her anyplace else. So it's a whale that reached sexual maturity without ever being seen in any of the 5 main habitats. Which is really unusual.

COX: The scientists on this boat can individually identify some 300 right whales. But they still have a hard time predicting the animals' behavior. Some whales, like this one, can drop out of sight for no apparent reason. Others show up in feeding or calving areas completely out of season. With so little basic understanding of right whales, scientists have been at a loss to explain why their numbers aren't increasing, like their cousins the humpback and the finback. The right whale population, believed to have been in the tens of thousands a few centuries ago, is down to about 350 today. While the scientists scratch their heads, one Massachusetts environmentalist is taking more direct action.

STRAHAN: The only issue in this litigation is to make people who are destroying the environment comply with reality and what science dictates, and that's what they simply don't want to do.

COX: Self-styled eco-warrior Max Strahan describes himself as the Prince of Whales. He says one reason for the right whale's decline is they're getting caught and dying in lobster nets and gill nets. So Strahan has filed suit in Federal court seeking an all-out ban of coastal fishing in Massachusetts.

STRAHAN: Outside of romantics, of Captain Courageous and all that stuff with fishermen, fishing is a very environmentally destructive practice. Nobody's asking fishermen to do anything more than what any landfill owner does, that any mall owner does, is obey the law and don't kill off endangered species.

COX: A Federal judge agreed with Strahan that when it comes to right whales, Massachusetts is violating the Endangered Species Act. The judge has given the state until December 16th to come up with a plan to keep whales from becoming entangled in lobster and fishing gear. That sent state officials, lobstermen and fishermen scrambling to figure out how to make their nets and traps less lethal.

(Gulls, boat on the water)

COX: A favorite feeding area for right whales is Cape Cod Bay. The Bay is also replete with dogfish, flounder, and lobster. At the height of the lobster season, as many as 69,000 traps may sit in the bay. Sandwich-based lobsterman Gary Ostrum is trying to figure out how he can adjust the maze of ropes he uses so whales won't get caught in them. Looking more like a magician than a man of the sea, Ostrum demonstrates how 2 fishing ropes stapled together snap apart under pressure.

OSTRUM: As you can see, there's plenty of strength there. But you put that in the hall and to haul your gear, but pulling sideways -- [pulls; rope separates] -- and that's apart.

COX: And if a person can pull the ropes apart, Ostrum assumes a whale could. But he hasn't been able to put his experimentation into practice yet, for one simple reason.

OSTRUM: In 17 years of fishing up there I've never seen a whale in my gear, so to try to take it, it's some understanding for me to -- what we're looking for to correct.

COX: Indeed, most of that correction work is taking place indoors.

MAN: Last meeting we talked about Cape Cod Bay, and...

COX: Here in a hotel conference room in Boston, a group of state officials, fishermen, environmentalists, and scientists, are trying to agree on how to make fishing gear more whale friendly. They're considering banning certain types of rope, as well as requiring fisherman to install sound alarms in their nets intended to scare whales off. But Dan McKinnon of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries doubts if much of this is necessary.

McKINNON: The majority of lobster traps are not fished during the winter months, and in the case of gill nets, our records show in the last 2 years and similar trends for the previous 2 years, there's almost no gill netting going on at all in the critical habitat during the months of January through April, which are the months that we believe right whales are most common in Cape Cod Bay.

COX: But gill net use in the bay is up by 18% in the past 2 years, and lobster pots by more than 50%. Despite more fishing gear in the waters, many environmentalists regard entanglement as a minor harassment of whales, not a big killer.

(A keyboard is punched)

COX: At the office of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, Eleanor Dorsey keeps track of right whale deaths. According to her statistics, 41 right whales are known to have died since 1970. Of those, 14 were struck by ships or boats. Only 2 died after getting caught up in fishing gear. Dorsey is worried about the lawsuit brought by fellow environmentalist Max Strahan. She says a ban on coastal fishing in Massachusetts would be counterproductive.

DORSEY: You don't get much benefit to right whales for an enormous economic loss, an enormous social disruption. And I'm afraid that in the long run the Endangered Species Act would suffer if it is pushed unreasonably.

COX: Dorsey and others believe that if you turn fishing communities against the Endangered Species Act, it won't be long before Congress tries to limit the Act's scope. Declining to invoke the Endangered Species Act has become a common strategy for many large environmental groups, something for which Max Strahan has nothing but contempt.

STRAHAN: The Endangered Species Act is like a muscle. And if you don't exercise it, there will be no protection for endangered species. If we don't do sensational battles, so the public has a choice to make, and you don't believe that the public will choose the wildlife over anything else.

COX: Although the court has ruled in Strahan's favor in the Massachusetts Right Whale case, the judge has termed Strahan an abrasive individual who is not capable of accommodating competing values. But according to Right Whale scientist Stormy Mayo, Strahand's absolutism may prove as valuable to the Right Whale as the compromises made by other environmental groups.

MAYO: The very intense activist environmentalists have a very important role to play, and so does the more mainstream conservation community, who certainly holds our feet to the fire. So I support the conflict that might exist.

COX: Mayo heads up a Cape Cod rapid response team that disentangles whales caught up in fishing gear. He's seen the effects of the nets and of ship strikes close up. But Mayo doesn't think they're the main reason Right Whales are faring so poorly. The main reason, he says, may be far more complex.

MAYO: The collapse of so many things in the northeast, marine water quality and fisheries and the like, parallels the Right Whale. And my fear is that we may have missed the very subtle whisper of the habitat telling us that it is not well. And that may be having ultimately a greater influence than all these other issues. We can't know, because we don't know the whale.

(Splashing water)

WOMAN: They've both got white spots on their bonnets.

MAN: Yeah. That's the calf.

COX: Scientists say they'll continue to study the Right Whale until they can figure out why the animal's population is not growing. In the meantime, they say, the whale's survival may depend on piecemeal solutions that few of them think will work in the long run. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Boston.



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