June 6, 2016
The right move for right whales
Protecting north Atlantic right whales
They're as big and magnificent as dinosaurs. Sadly, like dinosaurs, if nothing is done to help them, North Atlantic right whales could disappear from the planet forever. They're the most endangered of all large whales.
Centuries ago, right whales were considered the "right" whale to hunt. The large, slow-moving whales often swim close to shore, which made them easy to kill. The huge mammals were valued for their large amounts of blubber (fat) and baleen (long plates in their mouth that filter plankton). Over time, thousands of the whales were killed.
Today, there are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales surviving in the North Atlantic and only a few dozen in the North Pacific oceans. Even though they've been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades, the number of right whales remains small.
North Atlantic right whales spend summers feeding off the coast of New England. In the fall, many of them migrate south toward the Carolinas and Florida where the females have their babies. This route takes them through some of the ocean's busiest zones, full of fast-moving cargo ships, pleasure boats and fishing vessels.
Because they swim so slowly, often right whales cannot get out of harm's way. They are struck by ships or become entangled in commercial fishing gear.
Serious accidents such as these can often be avoided. Collisions are less likely to kill right whales if boats travel slowly and avoid areas where right whales gather at different times of the year.
Right of Way
In 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established special travel lanes for ships to follow in areas where right whales feed and give birth. In addition, ships are required to slow down near busy ports along the right whales' migratory route.
Still the right whales have not recovered. That prompted organizations like The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and others to fight for more protections for the whales. Earlier this year, they succeeded in getting right whales' critical habitat (protected areas) expanded by nearly 40,000 square miles. That means that care must now be taken to protect the ocean habitat in those larger areas, giving right whales a better chance for survival.
Time will tell if this will be enough for the endangered right whale population in the Atlantic to grow. But it's a first step (or should we say a first splash) for these magnificent creatures to once again populate the oceans.
Did you know?
Adult North Atlantic right whales are about 50 feet long—about five feet longer than most school buses! The whales can weigh up to 70 tons.
Right whales are among the largest and most endangered whales in the world.