The North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species that spends its summers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With just over 500 animals left, any decrease in the population is not a good sign for the species. Unfortunately, since June, ten whale carcasses have been found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the whales spend their summers. This is an unprecedented number of dead whales, the likes of which haven’t been seen since whaling was outlawed in 1986, according to marine biologist Tonya Wimmer. Researchers know of only three calves born this summer, so these losses could be catastrophic to the population.
What’s worse is that examinations of the whales show that the majority of the deaths were due to human activity. The Gulf is a high-traffic area with large vessels either passing through or fishing. Most of these whales suffered blunt-force trauma from either ships or human equipment. One whale died from chronic entanglement–having a piece of fishing equipment stuck on it for too long.
Detangling has been put on hold indefinitely by the government for the safety of rescuers and researchers. This means that any whales currently suffering from being enmeshed in ropes or nets will have to stay that way until the ban is lifted.
Well, that all sounds mighty disheartening, what’s the good news? The good news is: the government is finally doing something about it. On Friday, Transport Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard announced a temporary mandatory slow-down order for vessels 20 meters or more in length in the area. Those who don’t abide by the speed limit–which will be enforced both by sea and air–will face fines of up to $25,000. The order will remain in place until the whales migrate to Georgia and Florida waters for the winter. The government is also asking smaller vessels to slow down voluntarily when passing through the Gulf.
The positive side to the fact that these whale deaths are the result of human activity is that it means it’s within our power to stop them. Unfortunately, the whale population has a slow growth-rate so it will take decades for it to recover from its endangered status, but we can make sure fewer die of unnatural causes. Researchers are looking into stopping entanglements before they occur by experimenting with rope-less fishing–a practice they use to protect marine life in Australia.
We need more permanent protections than the temporary slow-down though, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence area. This summer, there are five times the usual number of right whales in the Gulf and scientists don’t see that number decreasing next year. They suggest climate change is to blame–that the food supply in other areas has been depleted, forcing them to seek out new sources. Hopefully, the order–and implementing it every year–will protect the right whale population enough for us to see it grow.