When whales wash ashore

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There is only one population of North Atlantic Right whales left on Earth, and it can be found off our coastline every summer, building the fat stores necessary for a southern winter. Were fate kinder, their skin would be a smooth, dignified black, but sharing these waters with human beings has covered them with unseemly grey scars, inflicted by collisions with passing ships or entanglement in fishing gear, both leading causes of death among these gentle giants.

Their numbers have been in flux over the 40 some years we’ve bothered to study them, ranging from 350-500 depending on the decade. Some years they are prolific, reassuring us with a number of new calves. Other years their bodies wash ashore, ensnared in ropes cutting them to the bone, or disfigured by the blunt force trauma of a speeding ship. Today, there are about 400.

Historically these whales concentrated in the Bay of Fundy, where there are a few conservation precautions are in place, but in 2017 they began to favour the richness of the Gulf of St Lawrence, where we’d in no way prepared for them. The result was a collision of worlds.

“Canada was really caught with its pants down.”

So said Tonya Wimmer, a marine mammal biologist in Nova Scotia and founder of the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), a charity whose mandate is to respond when marine species are in crisis, whether at sea or on shore, saving lives where possible, easing suffering when necessary, and learning as much as possible about the health of our ocean from each incident. They maintain a network of trained volunteers in each Maritime province to secure species who wash ashore, and enable their partners, such as the Atlantic Veterinary College, to conduct fundamental research. Their hotline is busy, setting considerable resources into motion for the sake of ocean health. In the summer of 2017, it rang off the hook.

“We had constant calls to our hotline of dead Right whales, over and over and over again,” she said, recalling this exhausting series of tragedies at sea. The dust didn’t settle until that September – 12 dead Right whales, five alive but entangled in fishing gear.

Of the 12 dead, MARS and its partners were able to bring seven ashore. Of those seven, six were intact enough to determine the cause of death. Of those six, four were killed by ship collisions, two by entanglements.

It took this appalling summer to bring our attention to the plight of the Right whale, as well as that of our federal government. After decades of lacklustre attention to our at-risk marine life, our leadership enacted swift and significant protections for his one species in the Gulf of St Lawrence, closing fishing grounds, limiting the amount of rope used to set traps, imposing speed limits on ship traffic and more. The following summer, 2018, not a single Right whale was found dead in Canadian waters and only three were found alive but entangled, an imperfect score, but progress.

This summer, however, these protections were changed…some might say softened. Why this was done Tonya couldn’t tell me, not least of which because MARS wasn’t invited to the relevant meetings, but it’s odd that we should toy with a successful formula after only one year. So far this summer eight, perhaps nine Right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters, and four alive but entangled. Whether this is a direct result of the softening mentioned above is impossible to say.

“The writing is on the wall,” Tonya told me just this August. “If we don’t do as much as we possibly can, we are going to lose the Right whale.”

This species is extremely long lived and has very few natural predators. They have evolved to reproduce slowly, and are in no way equipped to handle the deaths we have forced on them. Right whales were persecuted most of all in the age of whaling because they moved slowly, swam close to shore and tended to float after being killed. Now they’re persecuted for being in our way, for failing to respect our substantial demands on their ocean home. There are so few left that the death of every individual is a mark against their survival as a species, and this summer isn’t yet over. We can and must do better, and for that, I direct you again to MARS.

This charity has its finger on the pulse of our oceans, advocating solutions, the protection of wildlife, and scrutinizing our impact in ways few others are. Their hotline has been in service 20 years now, and is directly responsible for much of the research thus far conducted, as well as the lives thus far saved. Their work requires staff, training, equipment and a maintained network of volunteers, all of which relies on funding from government and the public. At this moment they’re trying to raise $15,000 on the website startsomegood.com/help-protect-right-whales, an endeavour which will either succeed or fail at midnight, August 31st. Take a moment to contribute, for the sake of our Right whales and all those denizens of the deep in need of compassion.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

Shown above is a dead right whale on Miscou Island, N.B. (Marine Animal Response Society photo)