NOAA re­searcher hope­ful for fu­ture

The Casket - - Local - AARON BESWICK [email protected]

There is hope.

For the North At­lantic right whale, that is.

As proof, Peter Corkeron points to the slow in­crease of the mam­mal’s pop­u­la­tion prior to 2010 — reach­ing a peak of just un­der 500 crea­tures.

“We can do this — there are more of them now than in 1990 or 2000,” said Corkeron, who works in the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s large whale re­search pro­gram.

“We can save them. Just as long as ev­ery­one wants to.”

It’s not that there’s a lobby to give up on the right whale, it’s whether we’re able to make the sac­ri­fices re­quired to stop ac­ci­den­tally killing them.

Corkeron and his team pub­lished a study in Royal So­ci­ety Open Sci­ence last week that at­tempts to math­e­mat­i­cally model what the pop­u­la­tion of North At­lantic right whales would be if we didn’t keep killing them.

And no, it’s not a mat­ter of just adding the con­firmed deaths by hu­man causes (at least 17 in 2017 alone) back onto the to­tal pop­u­la­tion.

To do that they com­pared pop­u­la­tion mod­els of North At­lantic right whale with its close rel­a­tives in the south­ern ocean.

Though the math gets a lit­tle com­pli­cated, they found that with­out what they call “an­thro­pogenic mor­tal­ity” (hu­man caused) since 1990 the pop­u­la­tion would be about dou­ble what it is to­day, about 300 an­i­mals.

In the wild, the right whale has no real nat­u­ral preda­tors. If a calf grows to be­come a ju­ve­nile, it will most likely live a long life of about 70 years.

If they’ve got plenty to eat, start­ing at around 10 years old they’ll calve about ev­ery four years.

That’s sim­i­lar to the south­ern oceans where seven dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions of right whales mi­grate down to­ward Antarc­tica to feed dur­ing the sum­mer and back up to the shal­low wa­ters off the con­ti­nen­tal shelves to calve.

Those pop­u­la­tions have been steadily in­creas­ing at rates well above that of their North At­lantic cousins.

“The North At­lantic isn’t the same as the south­ern ocean — so you could ex­pect in the south­ern ocean they would re­pro­duce bet­ter,” said Corkeron.

“But three times bet­ter? Re­ally?”

Those south­ern pop­u­la­tions are also re­cov­er­ing from the dec­i­ma­tion left by the whal­ing in­dus­try. Es­ti­mates vary widely, but some 9,000 to 21,000 North At­lantic right whales are thought to have once vis­ited our wa­ters an­nu­ally.

Now we’re des­per­ately try­ing to save the few that re­main.

To that end, 2018 was a good year for the cetacean — only two were found dead.

Fish­er­men’s groups, Trans­port Canada and the Depart­ment of Fisheries and Oceans, mean­while, con­tinue to work on ways to limit the harm we visit on the an­i­mals — whether from ves­sel strikes or gear en­tan­gle­ment.

“One of the mes­sages of this pa­per is even when things are seen as go­ing well, we could have done bet­ter,” said Corkeron.

“And it’s on us all to do bet­ter.”

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