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Scientists and advocates racing to save North Atlantic right whales are trying a new approach this season: warning boaters that hitting a whale could sink their boat.
Educating ordinary boaters and convincing them to slow down and watch for whales is a key step in protecting right whales – an effort that also includes coordinated tracking and surveillance, restrictions on large vessels and an ongoing battle over the lobster fishing in the northeast.
North Atlantic right whales travel to waters off Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas each winter to give birth. With less than 350 whales left on the planet and less than 100 of those females of breeding age, every baby matters.
Last year, a 54-foot fishing boat off Florida injured a mother whale and killed her calf.
In the southeast, ships over 65 feet — like container ships calling at ports in Georgia — are supposed to follow a speed limit during calving season to avoid harming or killing whales. Most fishing boats, however, are too small to fall under this speed rule. But they’re still big enough to kill a whale, especially a calf, like the one off the coast of Florida.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might find it,” said Tybee Island charter fishing captain Judy Helmey.
She’s been fishing off the Georgian coast for more than half a century and remembers the days when there were far more right whales in the water – and there weren’t yet any laws forcing boats to keep their distance.
“So we would just cut our engines and drift with them,” she recalls.
Now the whales are in the midst of an “unusual mortality event” that began with a spike in deaths in 2017. The main causes: heavy fishing gear, especially that used for lobster in the North, and people who strike whales with boats. , including small ones.
Since 2004, there have been five highly suspicious collisions of right whales by boats under 65 feet, according to Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The fate of the whale is not known in all cases, but “boaters saw large pools of blood in the water,” he said.
“Most people don’t know we have whales here,” Helmey said. “They could hit one and hurt the whale or hurt themselves. I mean, there could be a lot of damage involved.
She’s not kidding. The fishing boat that hit a whale and her calf last year nearly sank. The captain had to immobilize the boat, and it ended up being a total loss – to the tune of over a million dollars.
‘Take it easy, whales down!’
State officials are emphasizing that point in a new messaging effort this season. Flyers and emails titled “Go Slow Whales Below!” feature photos of the sinking fishing boat and urge boaters to slow down and watch for right whales.
“One of the things we’ve tried to impress upon inshore boaters is, you know, keep your eyes peeled, be careful, and slow down, not just to help the whales, but to protect yourself, your boat, and your people. passengers,” George said. “If you hit a whale offshore here and you start taking on a lot of water, things could get dangerous very, very quickly.”
Helmey said she thinks it makes sense.
“I think it’ll get them reading the whole thing,” she said. “And then maybe they’ll start thinking, then they’ll try to find a way to notice [whales] better. Because you heard that such a big boat sank, you can imagine what that will do to a small boat.
From November to March, scientists also search for whales off the coast of Georgia, looking for mother whales and their hatchlings.
When they spot a couple, they photograph them from above with an airplane or drone and from a boat with a long-lens camera, operating under a special permit; most boats must stay 500 meters from endangered whales.
“Each of these mothers is identifiable by the markings on her head,” George said on a recent whale-tracking trip. “The great thing about these new little quadcopter drones is that we can keep a distance like this, and we can send it over there, and get the images we need.”
Whales have whitish bumps on their heads and ridges along their lips. Many also have identifiable scars from entanglements or collisions with boats they managed to survive.
George and his colleagues in the right whale effort, which includes Georgia DNR, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Fish and Wildlife, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the New England Aquarium, have spotted 14 calves so far this winter. They’ve also seen female whales in the area without calves, so they’re hoping for more.
This is an improvement: in 2018, no calves were born, and numbers were low in many of the surrounding years.
Scientists have determined that climate change is to blame. Warmer ocean waters in the Gulf of Maine, where whales typically feed, have caused the plankton population to plummet. The lack of food has led to a drop in the reproductive rate.
It also caused right whales to seek food elsewhere, including in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, where there were not yet adequate protections in place. In 2017, 17 whales were found dead, including 12 in Canada. The country has since put in place rules to protect the whales.
In light of all this, George called the recent increase in calvings “encouraging”. But he said there was a caveat.
“Even if all calved at record numbers, as often as they could, the population would still not increase due to the number of deaths from human causes each year,” George said.
Helmey helps spread the word through a widely read weekly newsletter that she distributes to boaters, fishing clubs and others on the coast. She includes her old photos of whales swimming like old Hollywood synchronized swimmers, or blowing their blowholes, or just floating near the surface.
“I have pictures that are really the coolest. I have the Esther Williams where they put a fin, go sideways, then I have them where they are upside down,” she said .
While Helmey saw the flyers, other inshore boaters said they hadn’t. According to the DNR, 52% of recipients, or 9,800 people, opened the “Go Slow, Whales Below” email that was sent to registered boat owners and saltwater fishing license holders.
St. Simons fisherman Will Owens said he didn’t notice an email from MNR. But he knows about whales – he remembers making a clay model of a right whale at school – and keeps an eye out for them.
“Whoever’s driving the boat, I mean, pretty much his only job is to watch out for trees, logs, other boats, really any obstructions that would cause damage to anything else or our own ship,” said Owens. “We try to leave no trace, as they say. We don’t want to cause any trouble. We want everyone to be safe.
DNR officials said their outreach efforts were just beginning. They hope to set up tables at boat shows so they can get the word out face to face and ultimately protect boaters and endangered whales.