By Lauri deGaris
Seventeen — that is the number of North Atlantic right whale calves born this season thus far. It is a bittersweet number. One right whale calf is not expected to see its first birthday after being struck by a small vessel. And, two other calves born this season are presumed dead as they have not been observed swimming with mom in several weeks.
Another blow to the struggling North Atlantic right whale population washed ashore on Jan. 28 along the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard. A juvenile right whale was discovered with rope entanglement wounds floating in the surf near Edgartown, Massachusetts. A whale necropsy will be completed, and results will be forthcoming.
With less than 360 right whales remaining in the North Atlantic population, every birth and every death is significant. Scientists believe the number of calves born each year is about equal to the number of annual right whale deaths. We can do better at protecting these animals from human-caused threats such as entanglements and vessel strikes.
In 2023, the New England Aquarium documented 32 human-related injuries to the North Atlantic right whale population. Six were fishing gear entanglements with gear attached to the whale. Twenty-four entanglements occurred with injuries and no gear attached. More than three-quarters of the entire North Atlantic right whale population has been entangled at least once. Even with measures in place to protect right whales, entanglements continue. Ropeless fishing gear holds promise, but widespread implementation will require significant financial support for the industry to adapt.
Also, small vessel speed restrictions to better protect North Atlantic right whales are being considered. Presently, only vessels over 65 feet are required to slow down in protected zones. This year, researchers have documented two deaths directly caused by vessel strikes. And, a third death is expected after the first calf born this season was struck by a small vessel off the coast of South Carolina. The thought of a newborn whale struck by a speeding vessel is hard to swallow, especially when you know it can be prevented.
It is not easy for us to think about the death of a whale, especially the death of a highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. However, when a whale dies in the ocean, many will eventually sink to the seafloor. And, low ocean temperatures at the bottom of the sea make it possible for a whale to decompose slowly over many decades. This, in turn, supports a rich assortment of sea life. Scientists discovered “whale fall communities” in 1987 off the coast of California. By studying a whale fall community, researchers found over 500 different species living on and around whale falls.
The fall of a whale to the bottom of the sea provides a meal for many. Sharks, fish, crabs, octopuses, tiny amphipods, and a host of other creatures take part in the bountiful feast. Hooded shrimp will sift through the sediment in search of a snack. Even after the bones have been scraped clean by crabs, the feast does not end.
Worms attach and release acid through their roots, breaking down whalebone. Bacteria living inside the worm roots absorb proteins and fat from the whalebone. Brittle stars and sea cucumbers search the sediment around the whale fall for morsels missed by others. Eventually, all the remains of the fallen whale are gone.
In college, I had an ecology professor whose favorite quote was “nullum gratuitum prandium” – Latin for “there is no free lunch.” The end of one life can be a bountiful gift for another life. It is Mother Nature’s way. I can appreciate the death of a whale from natural causes such as old age. However, it is hard to swallow the death of any whale that dies prematurely at the hands of careless humans.
We can do better at helping to protect the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. Boaters post a lookout, use caution, and give whales a wide berth, especially during calving season. Please report all whale sightings, including dead or injured right whales, to 1-877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or to the USCG on marine VHF Ch. 16, as quickly as possible. Updated information, conservation measures and public meetings regarding the North Atlantic right whale can be found here.