Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Scientists Shepherd Dwindling Right Whales

By Adrianne Appel*

BOSTON, May 12 (IPS/IFEJ) - When a North Atlantic right whale swimming near Boston bellows at 3 a.m., a phone rings in a small town in upstate New York.

A specially trained analyst opens his phone, reads the text message about the location of the whale, one of just 400 left in the world, and tumbles out of bed to his computer. After viewing more data, he decides to phone in an emergency alert to a liquefied natural gas tanker.

"They may get woken out of bed. It’s not an easy job," Chris Tremblay, manager of the alert system, said of the 15 analysts. The Right Whale Listening Network is run by the Bioacoustics Research Laboratory at Cornell University’s Ornithology Laboratory.

The Cornell alert system works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whenever a whale call is detected by any of 16 listening buoys installed near Boston, or 10 buoys near New York City.

The analysts put up with the strange work hours because they think of it as an opportunity to protect one of the most endangered animals in the world, Tremblay said.

"They feel like they are doing something important," Tremblay told IPS.

At 65 tonnes and 15 metres long, these whales don’t rush. They lumber through the cool waters along the East Coast of North America, as far north as the Bay of Fundy, at top speeds of just 16 kilometres per hour, as they have for thousands of years.

The whales amble through the water with their crooked mouths gaping wide, feeding and calling out to each other.

"'The only thing you can say is they are very odd," Charles "Stormy" Mayo, a senior scientist of the Provincetown Centre for Coastal Studies, told IPS. "Gigantic mouths occupy the front third of the animal, and they have huge walls of baleen, leading to this capacity to filter monstrous amounts of water."

"They have tales much bigger than other whales because they need it to push their giant mouths through the water," said Mayo, who has been studying what, where and how the whales eat for more than 35 years.

The North Atlantic right whale was hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s and its population has not recovered.

Today, the whales’ waters are cluttered with tankers, small vessels and fishing boats, and clogged with fishing gill nets, lines and gear. Collisions with ships and gear entanglements are their biggest killers, said Mary Colligan, a whale expert with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

She is one of hundreds of conservationists, researchers and government experts who are desperately trying to keep the whales from becoming extinct.

"Our goal is zero entanglements," Colligan said. "It’s a very difficult issue because there is no easy solution," she said of keeping the "urban" whales safe.

The whales naturally live to 70 years, but the average lifespan today is just 15, mostly due to human causes, according to Cornell’s bioacoustics programme.

More than 75 percent of the right whales have scars from ship propellers or commercial fishing gear, according to the Provincetown centre.

"The most severe entanglements involve the mouth. The tackle gets caught in the mouth and impedes feeding," Colligan said.

The whale population was declining for decades and since about 1999, ever stricter shipping and fishing rules have been in force, and elaborate alert systems like the one in Boston installed.

"The waters they migrate through, and their habitats, are now safer because of the conservation measures we’ve been able to put in place," Moira Brown, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, told IPS.

Recently, "things have been looking better for the right whales," Brown said.

The whale population has started to grow at one percent a year, after years of declining. This year a "bumper crop" of 39 calves were born, she said.

Brown’s dedication to the whales takes her out at sea, near Boston, in January, when the temperature may be minus 6 degrees C. on land. She and a crew take turns standing on deck, to observe and photograph any whales. They dress in one-piece, insulated suits.

"With a flotation in it, just for safety purposes, not that we plan to go over the side," she said.

The photographs are entered into a database of every known whale, which many researchers contribute to. The whales are identified by a unique pattern of raised, white bumps on the backs of their heads, called callosities. As calves they were born with completely smooth skin but within weeks, callosities form and stay with them for life.

Officially, the researchers catalogue the animals by number. Unofficially, some are known as Nantucket, or Silver, a male missing part of his tale fluke, or Kingfisher, who lives year in and year out with fishing gear tangled around his flippers.

Ruth Leeney and her crew take aerial photographs of whales that feed in Cape Cod Bay.

"This work is particularly interesting because you get to fuse research with conservation," Leeney told IPS.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists ­- for Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org ).


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