There is only one population of North Atlantic right whales left on Earth.
Every summer they appear off our coastline, building the fat stores necessary for a southern winter. Were fate kinder, their skin would be a smooth, dignified black, but sharing these waters with human beings has covered them with unseemly grey scars, inflicted by collisions with passing ships or entanglement in fishing gear, both leading causes of death among these gentle giants.
Their numbers have been in flux over the 40 some years we’ve bothered to study them, ranging from 350–500 depending on the decade. Some years they are prolific, reassuring us with a number of new calves. Other years their bodies wash ashore, ensnared in ropes cutting them to the bone, or disfigured by the blunt force trauma of a speeding ship. Today, there are about 400.
Historically these whales concentrated in the Bay of Fundy, where there are a few conservation precautions are in place, but in 2017 they began to favour the richness of the Gulf of St Lawrence, where we’d in no way prepared for them. The result was a collision of worlds.
“Canada was really caught with its pants down,” says Tonya Wimmer, a marine mammal biologist in Nova Scotia and founder of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), a charity whose mandate is to respond when marine species are in crisis, whether at sea or on shore, saving lives where possible, easing suffering when necessary, and learning as much as possible about the health of our ocean from each incident.
They maintain a network of trained volunteers in each Maritime province to secure species who wash ashore, and enable their partners, such as the Atlantic Veterinary College, to conduct fundamental research. Their hotline is busy, setting considerable resources into motion for the sake of ocean health. In the summer of 2017, it was busier than ever
“We had constant calls to our hotline of dead right whales, over and over and over again,” she recalls. The dust didn’t settle until that September: 12 dead right whales, five alive but entangled in fishing gear.
Of the 12 dead, MARS and its partners were able to bring seven ashore. Of those seven, six were intact enough to determine the causes of death: ship collisions killed four and entanglement in fishing gear accounted for the others.
It took this appalling summer to bring our attention to the plight of the right whale. After decades of lackluster attention to our at-risk marine life, Ottawa enacted swift and significant protections for his one species in the Gulf of St Lawrence, closing fishing grounds, limiting the amount of rope used to set traps, imposing speed limits on ship traffic, and more. The following summer, not a single right whale was found dead in Canadian waters and only three were found alive but entangled: an imperfect score, but progress.
This summer, however, government relaxed those protections. Wimmer doesn’t know why they did that because they didn’t invite MARS to discuss it. Toying with a successful formula after only one year is an odd choice; so far this summer eight, perhaps nine right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters, and four alive but entangled.
“The writing is on the wall,” Wimmer says. “If we don’t do as much as we possibly can, we are going to lose the right whale.”
Right whales are extremely long lived and have few natural predators. They have evolved to reproduce slowly, and are in no way equipped to handle the deaths we have forced on them. Right whales were persecuted most of all in the age of whaling because they moved slowly, swam close to shore, and tended to float after being killed.
Now they’re persecuted for being in our way, for failing to respect our substantial demands on their ocean home. There are so few left that the death of every individual is a mark against their survival as a species, and this summer isn’t yet over. We can and must do better.
MARS has its finger on the pulse of our oceans, advocating solutions, the protection of wildlife, and scrutinizing our impact. Its work requires staff, training, equipment, and a network of volunteers, all relying on funding from government and the public. MARS is trying to raise $15,000, an endeavour which will either succeed or fail at midnight on Aug. 31. Take a moment to contribute, for the sake of our right whales and all those denizens of the deep in need of compassion.