In the last few years, we New Brunswickers have become more and more aware of the North Atlantic right whale and the dangers facing this small, but special, population. Each year, the right whale migrates into Canadian waters for a feeding frenzy. Despite years of attention from Canadian governments and conservation groups, right whales are dying in Canadian waters and need our devoted and strategic action for protection. Here we answer five common questions you might have asked about the right whale this summer as it frequented the news.
1. Why are right whales endangered?
Before the 1972 ban on commercial whaling in Canada, the North Atlantic right whale was a popular species for whalers. Nicknamed the “right whale to hunt”, right whales were hunted to near extinction for their valuable blubber. Right whales are slow swimmers that meander along the coasts near the ocean’s surface, putting them in close contact with humans and our activities at sea. Right whales are most threatened by the risk of deadly strikes by ships (imagine hitting a bumblebee with your car) and by the risk of entanglement in fishing gears, though new risks like increasing noise in the ocean may also threaten this species.
2. Why are right whale populations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence now?
Since 2015, right whales have been spotted in higher numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as they follow their favourite food, a tiny cold-water animal called a copepod. This change might be a response to climate breakdown, as waters to the south get warmer, copepods might be more abundant for eating in the Gulf. Currently, critical habitat for the right whale, areas that are legally protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), are designated near Grand Manan and southeast of Nova Scotia. As right whales become common visitors in other regions of Atlantic Canada, it is important that conservation actions can protect right whales in new critical habitats.
3. How are we able to tell individual whales apart?
You may have noticed that scientists and conservation groups speak about right whales as if we know them—because we do! Right whales have unique white lumps and bumps on their heads that allow us to tell them apart like the tail of a humpback whale or our own fingerprints. They are the only whale species that has a symbiotic relationship with whale lice that form these “callosities”. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium manages a database of right whales from photos, videos, and, more recently, from fecal and skin samples. These databases have been in place for over 30 years, allowing us to track right whale families, whale health, and even give names to mothers and calves.
4. What is Canada doing to protect the right whales?
Since 2017, our federal government has taken action to slow down big ships in more and more areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when whales are present, reducing the risk of deadly collisions between ships and whales. To reduce the risk and impacts of entanglement, new temporary fishing closures are in place and support has been given to organizations who respond to distressed whales, including whales that need to be disentangled. New efforts have also been made to monitor the Gulf, looking for right whales from overhead flights and funding research aimed at understanding and protecting the whales. While these new actions are encouraging, there is still a lot of work to do! Right whales are at a very real risk of extinction, and this has caught the attention of governments, conservation organizations, and communities across Atlantic Canada.
5. How can I help to protect the right whales?
Hearing of another right whale entangled, another ship-struck individual, another floating carcass makes us wonder what we can do to help this hurting species. Here are a few ideas:
- If you’re lucky enough to get to watch right whales, remember to stay far enough away to enjoy their presence from a respectful distance.
- Take action by supporting our friends at the Marine Animal Response Society in their current fundraising campaign to support programs for marine animals in distress. Hurry, the campaign closes this Friday, August 30. Donate here.
- Keep reading up on the right whale and share news with your family and friends. We need everyone to understand the urgent need to vocally support action to protect this endangered species!
- Tell your government representatives that protecting the right whale is important to you – your voice in standing up for wildlife is important!
You can support the conservation work of CPAWS-NB to get more people standing up for ocean and whale conservation here.
Header photo by Nick Hawkins.
Julie Reimer is a PhD student at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and a Board Member of CPAWS-NB. Having worked in the whale watching industry in New Brunswick and conducted her Master’s research on conservation planning for the North Atlantic right whale, Julie is an advocate for MPAs in New Brunswick. Julie’s current research attempts to see the “bigger picture” of conservation, reaching beyond protected areas to understand the synergies between conservation actions and ocean industries. To connect with Julie, visit http://juliereimer.wixsite.com/hello.