Save the Whales!?

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Published on April 15th, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

Save the whales! Why have these three words become a cliché used to mock or dismiss environmental concerns? It may have something to do with concerns that choosing to conserve nature means not caring about human needs. This doesn’t have to be the case, and I hope you’ll read to the bottom of this post to understand what I mean.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of Planet Ocean’s most endangered species. After more than three centuries of whaling, less than 450 remain today. They aren’t intentionally hunted anymore—the last northern right whale hunt ended in 1935. Today we only kill them unintentionally. The two largest sources of human caused mortality to right whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Right now female right whales and their new calves are making their spring migration from wintertime calving areas in Georgia and Florida to summertime feeding and breeding areas in the Gulf of Maine. And it’s a good year, with over twenty new calves moving north, nestled in the slipstreams of their mothers.

Sadly, in the last three weeks at least three whales have been found dead on Mid-Atlantic beaches. I learned about the first death from our partner Captain Monty Hawkins, a recreational party boat captain from Ocean City, Maryland. Capt. Monty takes anglers on missions to discover black seabass and tautog and the sensitive coldwater coral habitats those fish depend on. On St. Patrick’s Day one of Monty’s customers spied what looked like a whale–up went the lines and off went the boat to investigate. They discovered and photographed a dead right whale named Slash. This female whale was first seen in 1979 and got her name from distinctive scars made by a boat propeller. She was known to have given birth to 6 calves since 1983. She was about 30 years old and could have lived another 30 years. We don’t know with any certainty what killed her because her body was not located for post-mortem examination.

About a week later, another dead right whale washed up near Nags Head, NC. Her ‘name’ is #1308 (you can search for her here) and she was known to have had at least 3 calves. A few days later a large sei whale washed up at Virginia Beach. Sei whales are beautiful and built for speed. Both #1308 and the sei whale had injuries consistent with ship strikes– however cause of death cannot be stated until pathology reports are complete. Our partners at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center are leading efforts to better understand why whales are dying in the Mid-Atlantic. Their Senior Scientist Susan Barco explains: “Although Virginia waters do not appear to be a place where any whale species spend a lot of time feeding or breeding, many endangered whales migrate through our waters. In the process they must cross one of the busiest marine highways in the world. Our research has been focused on better understanding the risks whales face when they make these annual journeys.

In the 21st century we should be able to figure out how to keep our ships from killing whales. In fact, in Massachusetts government agency officials, shipping industry representatives, environmentalists and whale researchers worked together to find an elegant solution to adjust shipping lanes and establish a speed zone (similar to a school zone speed limit on land). The result was that the chance of ships running into whales was greatly reduced, with minimal economic impacts to shipping companies. This is a great example of a Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) approach–bringing diverse ocean stakeholders together to craft win-win solutions to real world problems. CMSP is at the center of the United States’ new National Ocean Policy and offers great promise for better alignment of human uses to reduce social and ecological impacts.

The need to advance CMSP is especially critical now as plans for offshore wind power infrastructure move forward into an already crowded and stressed ocean. Federal and state agencies and many ocean stakeholders stand ready to chart a course for a more sustainable ocean future–a future that includes safe transit for whales and ships, coldwater corals, thriving fisheries, and more carbon free wind power.

‘Save the Whales’ bumper stickers first showed up on VW minivans three generations ago — it’s time for this generation to reclaim, reaffirm and expand the sentiment — Save the Whales, Save the Ocean and Save the Humans too.

(Image: A North Atlantic right whale mother and her calf beginning the journey from Florida to summertime feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine.  Image credit: NOAA/Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

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