New Funding, New Hope For North Atlantic Right Whale

By Neville Judd

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, Canada, September 20, 2000 (ENS) - They used to roam the Atlantic in the hundreds of thousands but the number of North Atlantic right whales now stands at 300. Their migratory patterns are as mysterious to researchers as their existence is fragile, but funding for a new plan announced by the Canadian government may yet save the species from extinction.


Whale species face threats the world over but few more so than the North Atlantic right whale. (Photo by S. Cosens, courtesy Department of Fisheries and Oceans)
The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered large whale in the world. After being hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century, this marine mammal has been internationally protected since 1935.

But the right whale has succumbed to other 20th century threats, namely collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, pollution and, most recently, a burgeoning whale watching tourism industry.

Grants totalling C$550,000 (US$371,000) from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Environment Canada will help put the North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan into action. The plan is made up of several projects designed to address these threats to the right whale. They bring together researchers, scientists and groups like World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF).

In one project, researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax are deploying a network of underwater microphones to develop a sonar technique by which ships can avoid collisions with right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

In another, the WWF is working with the conservation organization East Coast Ecosystems, and local fishermen to test fishing gear that has been specially designed to release entangled whales.

East Coast Ecosystems is a partner in a third project analyzing right whale distribution and ship traffic in the Bay of Fundy with a view to adjusting shipping lanes and thereby preventing ship strikes.

The DFO's species at risk coordinator Jerry Conway told ENS that other than right whales' presence in the Bay of Fundy and Nova Scotia's Roseway Basin from June to October, little is known about their migratory habits during the rest of the year. The species reproductive habits and general biology are little understood.

"Where they go is anyone's guess," said Conway. "The pregnant females usually go down to Florida and Georgia to give birth but the last couple of years, there have been less than a dozen spotted.


The Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where federal funding was announced last week. (Photo courtesy Department of Fisheries and Oceans)
"They used to roam the entire Atlantic, well into the Bay of Biscay and northern Europe. Last year, off Nova Scotia, a right whale was spotted that later turned up in a fjord in Norway in September, so some still follow old migratory routes."

Cathy Merriman, WWF's senior manager for conservation science and field projects, said last Friday's funding announcement provided hope for the right whale's survival.

"With this funding in place, we can move forward from planning how the right whale might be saved from extinction to actually putting those plans into action," she said.

"No one group alone can help the whales recover, but our combined efforts can prevent the disappearance of this species from Canadian waters."

The DFO has committed $250,000, with additional financing to come as the plan is implemented. Under Canada's Habitat Stewardship Program, Environment Canada pledged a further $300,000.

The Habitat Stewardship Program was announced with the recently tabled Species at Risk legislation. The Canadian government has earmarked $90 million over three years for species at risk projects.