Reports Offer Hope for Right Whales
Listen to Allison Aubrey's report.
Protecting More Females Could Ensure Species Survival
Northern Right Whale Fact Sheet
Nov. 29, 2001 -- In the heyday of whaling during the 1800s, one group of whales was most attractive to the men who set sail in small boats to hunt them down. Slow-swimming Eubalaena whales were easy to catch and their oil brought top dollar. The animals earned their common name -- right whales -- from whalers who determined they were the "right" whale to catch.
This distinction put these animals on the brink of extinction and they remain severely endangered.
But today, two stories published in scientific journals offer a glimmer of hope for the recovery of the right whale. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports for All Things Considered.
Right whales have thick bodies and huge heads that account for about one-third of their length. Scientists have been trying to study them, but with an estimated few dozen left in the North Pacific, sightings have become extremely rare.
But in the late 1980s, marine biologists started getting calls from fishermen who thought they were seeing right whales in shallow waters just off the Alaskan coast -- far from their traditional neighborhoods. Cynthia Tynan of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center suspected they had come in search of food. She arranged a research cruise to check it out and has published her findings in today's issue of the journal Science.
Species in Trouble
Tens of thousands of right whales once roamed along the North Atlantic coasts. Today, only 300 -- maybe less -- are found in the western North Atlantic, and the eastern North Atlantic population is most likely extinct. What happened?
The lucrative commercial whaling industry had reduced the animals to near extinction by 1900.
Their slowness made them easy to catch, and once killed, they floated, making them the "right" whale to hunt.
Once the whaling industry collapsed, the whale population slowly began to recover.
In 1980, whale numbers started falling again.
By 1995, the average female life expectancy had plummeted from a peak of more than 50 years to less than 15, reducing the number of calves born.
Calving grounds overlap with shipping lanes, increasing whale collisions with ships.
Today, entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships are the main threat to the right whales, causing an estimated 50 percent of known right whale deaths.
At first her team saw nothing, but one day, in the fading twilight, one scientist spotted the trademark V-shaped spray of the right whale shooting 30 feet into the air.
The team motored close enough to pierce each of the five whales with a harmless dart that took an instant biopsy of the whales' tissue. The genetic results have not yet been announced, but the team is pretty certain that all five whales they spotted are males. Spotting the whales was a welcome sight, but finding only males offers a troubling insight as to why the species is not recovering. Without females, the population cannot grow.
Across the country on the Atlantic coast, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution writing in the journal Nature report the same trend. Going back two decades, they gathered data on the 300 known right whales in Atlantic waters.
Study author Hal Caswell concludes male survival rates are steady, but females are in trouble. Data show the female survival rate is going down. Scientists aren't sure why, but it seems that giving birth makes female whales vulnerable.
Mother right whales spend a year nursing calves. During this time they avoid the deep ocean and stay at the surface of shallow waters near the coastline -- waters full of fishing boats and cargo ships.
It's been known that whales get trapped in nets and hit by ships. But never before has the loss of one whale become so critical, say researchers. John Hayning, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, estimates there are about 25 reproductive age females in the North Atlantic. Given these numbers, say researchers, it's clear small efforts to save one can have a profound effect on whether the species survives.
Browse for other NPR stories about whales.
Visit Nature online.
Visit Science online.
Read about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's efforts to protect the northern right whale.
Adopt a right whale through the New England Aquarium.
Follow the whales through NOAA's whale sightings report.
Read about the NOAA and New England Aquarium whale tagging program.
Read about the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's marine research and conservation programs.
Learn about whales and other marine mammals at the nonprofit organization, Savethewhales.org.
Visit the International Whaling Commission Web site to learn about international conservation efforts.