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Winning the Fight for the Lives of Whales
Ocean River Institute, Inc Ocean River Institute, Inc
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Cambridge, MA
Thursday, April 13, 2023


Massachusetts officially declared April 24 as Right Whale Day to raise awareness about the endangered. North Atlantic right whales, the state’s official marine mammal.

Right whales have been coming to Cape Cod Bay in April for as long as there has been a Cape Cod Bay. These sandy, shoaly waters warm faster than deeper, dark-bottom ocean realms. In the Gulf of Maine, a sea beside the Atlantic Ocean, seawater rotates counterclockwise fastest in April driven by river water coming off the land. Nutrient-rich waters are upwelled on the threshold of Stellwagen Bank, defining the East boundary of Massachusetts Bay and drift on into Cape Cod Bay where phytoplankton blooms feeding zooplankton feeding right and sei whales. Forage fish, including sand lance, herring, and mackerel eat zooplankton and are then scooped up by gaping-mouthed minke, fin, and humpback whales.

It’s time for the National Marine Fisheries Service to slow down to 10 knots or less the speeds of all vessels. Ships were slowed down from March 1st to April 30th.  There were no vessel-related right whale deaths during the spring season from 2008 until 2016.

On May 5th, 2016, a right whale calf was found dead off Morris Island in Chatham. It was the first right whale fatality by ship strike since speed restrictions were implemented in 2008. The 30-ft long calf weighing about 10,000 pounds was the eighth right whale born to a whale named Punctuation. Mother and calf were observed swimming together in Cape Cod Bay on April 28th.  As a result, speed restrictions were extended in the Race Point area after April 30th.

On April 13th, 2017, a juvenile female right whale was found dead off Barnstable, where speed restrictions were in effect from January 1st to May 15th. This second right whale death was the first ship strike death documented in or near a seasonal management zone since the speed rule was enacted.

This has already been a terrible year for whales, with 23 dead whales found along the East Coast since early December 2022. Most of the whales lost were humpbacks (16) and minke whales.

In February, a 20-year-old male right whale, 43 feet long, was struck and killed by a vessel off Virginia Beach. The whale had multiple vertebral fractures and separations. There was no evidence of entanglements or evidence of trauma for the whale in normal to thin nutritional conditions.

This tragedy for whales is linked to record-setting pandemic buying habits that have resulted in more ship traffic. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has reported a 27 percent increase in cargo volume from 2019. In addition, ships are returning to retrieve empty cargo containers that accumulated in port and contributed to last year’s supply-chain havoc.

The secondary cause of whale deaths is entanglement with lobster and crab trap lines. Developing lineless traps is not as simple as non-lobstermen think. Two years of research found that floating a trap to the surface is a lesser challenge than retrieving pots gone adrift in all types of wind, waves, and weather. More time is needed to figure this out before they can be mandated.

Diminishing food sources are the third force quelling whale populations. Phytoplankton, tiny plant-like organisms, have been found to be about 65% less productive than they were two decades ago. This makes no sense with warming seas and plenty of nutrients washing off the land. These are the conditions for harmful algal blooms and episodic events of ocean dead zones.

What has increased over the last two decades has been developments on the land, more impervious surfaces with more surface runoff following more extreme rainfalls.  The infamous year was 2013, when surface ocean temperatures reportedly rose four degrees. This was an extraordinarily hot summer, 1.3 to 1.6 degrees above average. At 172% of average rainfall, 2013 was very wet and the third wettest since 1895.

More developments result in more suburban lawns and powerlines with more herbicides applied. We need to slow the waters flushing poisons into the sea to restore the growth of phytoplankton. If we can retain water when it is in great abundance, there will be more water in the landscape during droughts, and more water in the ground keep rivers flowing during the summer. Less fresh hot water stretching out across the surface of the sea will also cool the ocean over the course of the summer.

To win the fight for whale lives, we must slow all boats to ten knots in the presence of whales, use lineless lobster and crab traps, reduce the amounts of pollutants and warm water discharged into the sea, and become better stewards of land, sea, and whales.

The Ocean River Institute provides opportunities to make a difference and go the distance for savvy stewardship of a greener and bluer planet Earth.  www.oceanriver.org 

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Rob Moir
Title: Director
Group: Ocean River Institute
Dateline: Cambridge, MA United States
Direct Phone: 617-714-3563
Main Phone: 617 714-3563
Cell Phone: 978 621-6657
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