There are now fewer than five hundred North Atlantic right whales and according to the report only five calves were born in 2017 and so far in 2018 no new calves have been seen. They continue to be under threat from ship strike and gear entanglement, but to make matters even worse rising temperatures are causing prey to move out of the whales typical feeding grounds resulting in them following the food to these new areas.
In the summer of 2017, 17 North Atlantic right whales were found dead in US Canadian waters. The deaths revealed that the whales had travelled further than their normal range in order to feed and had come into contact with heavier shipping traffic and fishing gear, which caused their death. With limited food in their typical feeding grounds it is likely that the whales travelled to find better food sources, which happened to be in relatively unprotected waters. This shows just how devastating the impact of changing ranges, distribution and behaviour can have, with critical effects on already reduced populations. This range extension had a large impact due to the waters they travelled through being unprotected.
Measures have already been taken in the Gulf of St Lawrence to protect the North Atlantic right whale and they are now part of the 2018 protection plan which has been announced by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada. These measures included the closure of fisheries in five areas off the coast of New Brunswick, and mandatory speed limits for ships. Researchers have also advised that a “robust and sustainable program” is needed for monitoring whales along with the reintroduction of the Continuous Plankton Recorder program (a prey monitoring system). They have also recommended that existing policies be evaluated, and whale habitat expansion should be monitored.
During a Saga trip to Canada in October 2017, ORCA surveyors experienced first-hand the speed restrictions which have been put in place in the Gulf of St Lawrence to protect one of the rarest animals on the planet. During this cruise the captain called on the team to assist observers to increase the ships chance of spotting whales as they travelled through the gulf and gave the ship advanced warning in order to reduce the risk of any collision. The team were rewarded for their persistence and had an unforgettable sighting of a North Atlantic right whale, as well as helping one of ORCA’s partners to go above and beyond in ensuring their impact on the species was minimised.
North Atlantic right whales are at the centre of these proposed protections but according to the report they are not the only species that will need such measures to be taken to protect them, with other species being at risk from similar threats. ORCA are actively researching the issue of ship-strike closer to home, in the Bay of Biscay.