Right whale numbers rising as ship strikes drop

Measures meant to stem the demise of one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals appear to be working as the population of North Atlantic right whales rises slightly and deaths linked to ship strikes level off.

HALIFAX — Measures meant to stem the demise of one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals appear to be working as the population of North Atlantic right whales rises slightly and deaths linked to ship strikes level off.

A scientist who studies the large, lumbering animals says preliminary numbers suggest initiatives in the United States and Canada that divert ships around areas where the mammals have been spotted could be slowing their decline.

“I think the ship-strike problem has been reduced,” said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

“Certainly they’re much better protected from ship strikes than they ever have been, so we’re hopeful that the number of mortalities from that sort of thing will reduce.”

Knowlton, who will study the whales for the next two months in the Bay of Fundy, said they could be seeing signs that regulations on speed and ship routing are having a beneficial effect.

In the U.S., a federal rule introduced in late 2008 forced ships of a certain size to slow down as they pass through areas along the eastern seaboard that are part of the migratory route of the whales.

The initiative, which was 10 years in the making, requires ships to reduce their speeds to about 19 kilometres an hour at certain times of the year when the whales are heading south to breed or north to feed.

It’s estimated about two are killed every year when they are hit by boats that cruise through their transit route, which stretches from breeding grounds off Florida and Georgia and up to the Bay of Fundy, where many feed in the summer months.

The creatures, which can measure up to 18 metres in length, travel slowly and close to the surface, putting the remaining 430 at risk of being rammed by large container ships.

In 2003, Canada re-routed some shipping lanes around the animal’s migratory path and, in 2008, implemented a voluntary area to be avoided near the Roseway Basin south of Nova Scotia.

Knowlton said there has been one fatality linked to a ship strike since 2008, a reduction that could signal new hope for the species.

“It seems like something could have shifted,” she said.

“We’re looking at the numbers of right whales and other large whale species to see if there has been a reduction in the number of animals that are ship struck.”

But while scientists are cautiously optimistic the ship measures are helping, they say whales are still dying from entanglements in fishing line.