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FSU scientist warns North Atlantic right whale facing extinction


Paper appears in July 22 edition of Science, says government protections inadequate

The North Atlantic right whale’s future looks grim if the current mortality rates continue, according to Florida State University assistant professor of oceanography Douglas Nowacek and a group of fellow scientists from across the nation. They have co-authored a paper titled "North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis" that appears in the July 22 edition of the journal Science.

In it, Nowacek and his colleagues contend that while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service has been charged with reducing the number of North Atlantic right whales killed by human activity, the government simply isn’t doing enough to protect the North Atlantic right whale and its habitats. At least 50 percent of all recorded deaths are due to collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear.

"This is in our power to control," said Nowacek. "The Endangered Species Act has a clear mandate to stop extinctions. For this whale, it is time to enforce that mandate."

Right whales range in the coastal waters of eastern North America from the Canadian Maritimes to Florida, regions heavily used by the military and by fishing and shipping industries. Despite international protections since 1935, it remains one of the most endangered whales in the world after 1000 years of whaling brought it close to extinction in the early 20th century.

Data compiled by Nowacek and his co-principal investigators documents an unprecedented eight whale deaths during the past 16 months -- almost three times the average annual rate in 25 years of study of the species -- including six adult females, three of which carried near-term fetuses. At least four of the whales were killed by human activities; ships hit three; and one whale was entangled in fishing gear. Only 17 percent of all mortality is detected, so reports of dead whales represent only a small fraction of actual deaths.

"Recent increases in calving rates, an average of 23 annually over the last five years, are inadequate to overcome this level of mortality," the paper states. "Without changes in the management of shipping and fisheries, right whales face extinction within the next 100 years."

The current plight of the North Atlantic right whale stands in stark contrast to that of the Southern Hemisphere right whale, whose population is estimated to be more than 10,000 and is increasing at approximately 7.2 percent per year.

While there have been efforts to minimize the risk of ship strikes -- mandatory ship location reporting, extensive aerial survey efforts and mariner education -- the scientists say that the initiatives don’t lead to a reduction in ship strike mortalities without required changes in the operation of ships within right whale habitats and migratory corridors.

And although the risk of fishing gear entanglements have been addressed through gear modifications and selective area closures, paper co-authors declare those closures inadequate because they don’t fully address the seasonal movement of right whales.

The scientists recommend the immediate implementation of interim emergency rules to address the current crisis and emphasize the need for renewed support now from the U.S. Congress and research community as well as the fishing industry.

Douglas Nowacek | EurekAlert!
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