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Taking action to improve plight of right whales

Ocean conservation and the preservation of whales and all marine life is the focus of the Ocean River Institute.  We are currently advocating for the passage of The Stewarding Atlantic Fisheries Ecosystems by Supporting Economic Assistance and Sustainability (SAFE SEAS) Act.  This bill aims to help lobstermen and women with the financial burden of using new trap lines that will no longer entangle whales or others.

We are also working with the Delaney family for a bill to declare Massachusetts Right Whale Day April 24 as a day of remembrance for the shrinking species and gratitude for awesome whales. The bill has passed the House and is now in the Senate Rules Committee.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is taking the smart step of proposing changes to the North Atlantic right whale vessel speed regulations to reduce the likelihood of mortalities and serious injuries to endangered right whales from vessel collisions.  Ship strikes are a driving factor in the death of right whales.

The right whale requires these actions more than other whales because they only eat zoo plankton. The whale grazes much like a harvester, moving slowly along the surface of the water with mouth open, filtering with baleen plates that may be heard clacking together.

Right whales can be mistaken for logs because they lack the dorsal fin and the wheeling motion of faster swimming whales.  Right whales are difficult to spot because a lack of birds circling or water roiled by bait fish. For these reasons, two sleeping humpback whales were mistaken for right whales until fin or flipper was revealed.

We urge NMFS to strengthen the effectiveness of the amendment.  Right whales wander and follow the shoals of copepods that drift with shifting currents. The times and areas where mandatory speed limits are required should be expanded and adaptive to where the whales are week by week. Larger vessels should be required to keep tracking devices always operating in these waters. (Other vessels will appreciate their heightened visibility.)

Vessels slowing down for right whales will save on fuel and carbon emissions. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) could conduct more outreach to make this known. Distributing cards that chart fuel savings versus speed vs tonnage, along the lines of the Coast Guard’s Maintenance Procedure Card, would help this process.

The right whale population was estimated at 350 back in 1978. Over the decades, the right whale population grew to more than 400 and expanded into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Today, the right whale population is on the decline.

Three actions, a government amendment and federal and state legislations, are just the tip of the iceberg of comprehensive ocean management. It’s all interconnected. Whales require healthy ocean ecosystems that are suffering when we permit runoff water from the land to feed harmful algal blooms, create ocean dead zones, warm surface waters, and smother fish nurseries with sediments.  We’ve only just begun to steward responsibly by thinking systemically to find nature-based solutions and acting holistically with a great diversity of interest groups informing decisions.

Dr. Rob Moir is president & executive director of Cambridge-based Ocean River Institute, a nonprofit providing expertise, services, resources, and information unavailable on a localized level to support efforts of environmental organizations.

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