Whales and hu­mans on a col­li­sion course

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION -

This ap­peared in the Sum­mer­side (P.E.I.) Jour­nal Pi­o­neer:

Ex­perts es­ti­mate there are only about 525 North At­lantic right whales still swim­ming in the world’s oceans. At least they were un­til last month. That’s when six of those large ma­rine mam­mals were found float­ing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Dead. It’s the largest known die-off in decades.

Necrop­sies per­formed on three of the car­casses on a P.E.I. beach last week noted ev­i­dence of blunt trauma, con­sis­tent with col­li­sions with ships, with two of the whales, and fish­ing gear en­tan­gle­ment for the other. It could be that ship strikes oc­curred af­ter the whales died, but it’s un­likely a whale be­came en­tan­gled in fish­ing gear af­ter it died. Hu­man ac­tiv­ity, such as ship­ping and fish­ing, have long be­ing iden­ti­fied as ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tors in the deaths of right whales in the decades since har­vest­ing of the gen­tle gi­ants ended.

But it’s hard to out­right blame a ship, or a fish­ing net. We all de­pend on ships for cargo and fish­ers for food. But we can’t just throw our hands up and say, ‘poor, help­less whale.’

It seems much is known about the right whale. They are rel­a­tively slow-mov­ing — av­er­age speed is around 10 kilo­me­tres per hour — so they’re rel­a­tively easy to track. Some have satel­lite tags at­tached.

Af­fix­ing tags to more of the whales, and re­ly­ing on the tags for even more in­for­ma­tion could be­come an im­por­tant piece of pro­tec­tion. If ex­perts know where the whales are, author­i­ties can cau­tion ships to re­duce their speed. If the satel­lite data sug­gests a whale is be­hav­ing ab­nor­mally, a res­cue crew might be able to ar­rive in time to free the an­i­mal from fish­ing gear.

It’s a mat­ter of be­ing in the right place at the right time for the right whale, and that was the case this week when the United States Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Administration alerted Cana­dian author­i­ties of a North At­lantic right whale in trou­ble off New Brunswick’s east coast. Help ar­rived in time and freed the whale from a fish­ing gear en­tan­gle­ment. That’s a piece of good news for a species in peril.

But it is a small vic­tory. The right whales’ nat­u­ral habi­tat is still on a col­li­sion course with hu­man ac­tiv­ity. We can’t ex­pect the whales to al­ter their course, so it’s up to us hu­mans to make changes to our be­hav­iour.

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