A Game-Changing Effort for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales
0:00:01.4 John Sheehan: At this time of year, North Atlantic right whales are found all along the east coast.
0:00:05.7 Speaker 2: In the winter and spring, many of the critically endangered whales come to Cape Cod Bay, on Wednesday...
0:00:12.4 JS: Unfortunately, that also puts the whales closer to human activity and at greater risk.
0:00:17.0 Speaker 3: This young right whale was found near Joseph Sylvia State Beach on Sunday entangled in a rope.
0:00:21.0 JS: This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries, I'm John Sheehan, and today we're getting an update on the status of North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species whose conservation is a major priority for this agency.
0:00:33.2 Caroline Good: The key threats to right whales right now are mortalities from entanglement in fishing gear and then interactions with vessels, so strikes from vessels, and this can be vessels of all sizes.
0:00:45.9 JS: This is my first guest, Dr. Caroline Good, a large whale ecologist in NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources, and the lead in the North Atlantic right whale vessel strike reduction program. We recorded our interview earlier in January, before we learned of the dead, entangled right whale found in Martha's Vineyard only days ago. This only underscores the precarious situation these whales are in.
0:01:11.5 CG: They remain in a very dangerous situation where they're truly at risk of extinction.
0:01:17.4 JS: A little later, I'll speak with Dr. Jon Hare, the director of NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, about how funding from the Inflation Reduction Act is being used toward right whale conservation efforts. But first, let's hear from Caroline about the current status of North Atlantic right whales.
0:01:33.3 CG: Unfortunately, the population status remains in a very serious situation. We currently have approximately only 360 individuals in the population, and we have fewer than 70 reproductively active females. We are losing too many animals to human threats from mortalities, and we're not producing enough calves to replace them.
0:02:00.6 JS: Yeah, and they range along the East Coast through busy shipping lanes and high activity areas. Can you describe sort of where to find them?
0:02:09.2 CG: Yeah, so it's interesting. Right whales are in US waters year round, but they predominate between late fall and early spring. So we have almost the entire North Atlantic right whale population in US waters between approximately November and early to mid May. And then large portions of the population will leave. They'll go up into Canadian waters and farther afield starting in sort of that late spring through summer and fall to forage in other areas, and then they come back. So the colder months, the fall, winter, and early spring are our core right whale season all along the East Coast. We find them all the time along our continental shelf and often extremely close to shore. In fact, so close to shore that they can be seen from shore. So because of that, they tend to be in places where we are engaged in a lot of activity or around the entrances to harbors and ports. So unfortunately, our activities tend to overlap with their habitat.
0:03:11.7 JS: And you mentioned this time of year, we're recording this in January, this is kind of the core season for right whales in our area. And we're in the middle of calving season, correct?
0:03:23.1 CG: We are. Yep, we're smack in the middle of calving season. The only known calving ground for the North Atlantic right whale occurs along the US Southeast Coast. So along the South Atlantic Bight, between southern North Carolina and northeastern Florida. And we have a variety of animals that will be seen down in that area during the winter. Most important, of course, are reproducing females. And thus far, at the time of this recording, we have recorded 13 right whale births this year, which is fantastic. And again, calving season isn't over. So of course, we're fingers crossed for even more.
0:04:02.9 JS: Absolutely. Can you explain a little more about why 13 births is such a great number? Do they have not many calves? And how long between calves?
0:04:14.1 CG: Yeah, so the number of calves can vary dramatically from year to year, we have had some years where we've had zero one calf born and other years where we've got more than 20-25. The calving interval, meaning the years between, how many years between calves that females have, unfortunately for our North Atlantic right whale population has increased and our calving interval's about every seven to 10 years. That is not a good sign. A healthy calving interval should be about three years for the species. And there are several reasons why we may be seeing that. One is calving is very energy intensive for whales. The moms need to bulk up, they need to put on a lot of blubber, they need to have access to an enormous amount of food, both to support the pregnancy, but equally important is to support the calf while nursing. They nurse for many months, the calves don't usually wean until they're eight or nine months old. The calves grow very fast, almost a foot a month during their first few months of life. And so you know that mom really needs those energy reserves in order to support that calf, which is why finding sufficient forage during the remaining part of the years is very important. Also, unfortunately, we have also seen evidence of animals that have sustained injuries from human related activities.
0:05:35.2 CG: So for example, a previous entanglement in fishing gear that also can cause strain and stress on the mother and delay her calving. We're also seeing mothers having their first calf later in their life. So when they're older, we would expect to be seeing some of those first calves from slightly younger females that are sexually mature, but we're seeing those numbers creep up too. So we're monitoring it very closely. But obviously, the only way to rebuild this population is to add calves. And so we're monitoring our calves very closely. This year, we have already unfortunately had a few setbacks with our calves that I can speak to. But we're monitoring the entire population closely and certainly hoping to see more.
0:06:20.9 JS: And let's talk about a few of those developments. You mentioned that this is sort of this critical time. And already in the last few days, we've seen some sort of tragic events.
0:06:31.1 CG: Yes. Yeah. So right whale mothers are very protective of their calves. And when they are in their first weeks and months of life, they are always right near the mother. And unfortunately, we've had a couple of events occur. First, a whale that is commonly referred to as Juno, she had a calf, in fact, she was the first mom seen with a calf in late November off South Carolina. And she was last seen with her calf on December 9th off Amelia Island, Florida, all being well. But on January 3rd, some members of the public who were out boating spotted them off of South Carolina, and unfortunately were able to take photographs of the calf with severe injuries to its head from a vessel strike. We have been able to review the information we have and have made a preliminary determination that this is a serious injury to the calf.
0:07:23.0 CG: It has propeller lacerations on its head, mouth and lip. And it's a very serious situation for this calf. There is some evidence of some healing that is going on, and we just spotted Juno with her injured calf, yesterday on January 11th, which is great. And we're gonna continue to be very closely monitoring and we have everyone on the lookout so that we can keep track of how that's going. We have another case where another mom who was previously spotted earlier at the end of December with a brand new calf was seen on January 5th off Florida without her calf. And we don't know just yet what may have happened to that calf, but the fact that we're seeing a mom alone without her calf is, not a good sign. But we don't always know what happened. Mortality, neonatal mortality at this life stage is not uncommon and things can go wrong, certainly when calves are born. And so it doesn't necessarily mean that this is a human caused event, we just don't know. But a calf separated from its mother who is unable to nurse will absolutely die. So we are very concerned to have seen her without the calf.
0:08:36.3 JS: Sure. And for all those reasons you mentioned, it's a really bad sign. On the positive side, there have been births, there's been several more births recently.
0:08:48.2 CG: Exactly. We just recorded three new births just in the past couple of days. And again, calving season isn't over. As we speak now we're in mid-January, and our calving season runs really through March. So there's yet more time for more calves. We have an enormous network of surveys that are out looking for mother calf pairs. So we do an enormous amount of monitoring along our southeast coast in winter so that we can record each and every calf. And that's definitely something that's an agency priority for us.
0:09:16.4 JS: And Caroline, you were the lead on North Atlantic right whale vessel strikes. As you mentioned, Juno's calf had clearly come in contact with a propeller, sustained a lot of injuries. When the last we spoke, we were talking about a proposed speed reduction rule. Can you remind us what that was about?
0:09:36.2 CG: Certainly. So we have an ongoing problem with lethal vessel strikes of North Atlantic right whales, and we undertook a substantial assessment of our current vessel strike reduction programs and realized that we needed to make some changes. Right now, since 1999, if we include this recent calf event, we have documented 26 lethal right whale vessel strikes in US waters, and that's just not sustainable for the population. So in August of 2022, we introduced a proposed rule to modify our right whale vessel speed regulations that included some expansion to seasonal areas where there would be mandatory speed restrictions and expansion also of the vessel size classes, and also the introduction of a new mandatory dynamic speed zone program to offer some discreet protection for right whales that were detected outside of seasonal zones. And we had anticipated taking final action on the proposed rule in 2023, but our rulemaking process remains underway and we continue to work on it.
0:10:51.1 JS: Yeah. And understandably probably hard to get implemented, but at the same time, there are only so many tools available to stop these strikes. It's the east coast, you can't stop ships. Maybe you can slow them down.
0:11:07.6 CG: Exactly. It is definitely challenging. We essentially have two tools to address vessel strikes. One are routing measures that would essentially help to separate whales and vessels in time and space. And this includes efforts that we've undertaken, for example, to modify shipping lanes or put in place recommended routing for vessels, and then of course slowing down vessels, which helps in two ways. It helps to reduce the lethality of the outcome of a strike. There may be an injury, but it's not necessarily a lethal injury. And then also slowing down vessels gives both the whale and the vessel operator additional time to be able to identify each other and avoid the strike in the first place. It's really about trying to figure out how can we modify what we do so that we can do all these things we would like to do in the ocean without causing such substantial harm that we're pushing a species to extinction.
0:12:06.5 JS: And Caroline, that's a really good segue into, I think what's a useful reminder occasionally is why we have these regulations and why we care about whale survival in the first place. It's not just altruism, obviously it's biodiversity. They play a crucial role in the food web and in the health of the ocean.
0:12:28.1 CG: Absolutely. Besides whales just being fascinating and very cool animals, we continue to learn about the really fascinating and interesting role that they play in the ecosystem. We have found, for example, that whales can enhance the productivity of our ecosystem because many large whale species forage at depth, including right whales, they forge both at the surface and at depth at different times of year. And believe it or not, what you'll see is they'll forge at depth, but they tend to, for lack of a better term, poop at the surface. You have a transfer of nutrients from deep ocean waters up to the surface where there's sunlight and warmer waters and higher productivity. And that can help with productivity of phytoplankton and other small species of zooplankton as well. And you can imagine too, whales are huge. They're massive, massive animals. So even when they die and their body sinks to the ocean floor, which we often refer to as a whale fall, that is a bonanza of food for lots of deep sea creatures who will feed on large whale carcasses for months and years and so they really do enhance the overall food chain and can, of course, as I was saying, actually help to enhance productivity in the ocean as well.
0:13:48.9 JS: Well, Dr. Caroline Good, thanks so much for speaking with me and for catching us up with North Atlantic right whales.
0:13:54.7 CG: Absolutely. They're a fascinating species. So it was great to talk to you today and thank you very much for the time.
0:14:00.2 JS: Caroline Good is a large whale ecologist in NOAA Fishery's office of Protected Resources and the lead in the North Atlantic right whale Vessel Strike Reduction program. Now, let's hear from Dr. Jon Hare as director of the Northeast Fishery Science Center, North Atlantic right whales are a major focus of his attention. It was announced that funds from the Biden Harris Inflation Reduction Act, $82 million in fact will go towards North Atlantic right whale conservation efforts.
0:14:28.5 Jon Hare: It's a game changer for North Atlantic right whale Protection and Recovery. We're able to put a large investment into developing technologies to both help vessels detect and avoid North Atlantic right whales. And so we would not have been able to do that without the Inflation Reduction Act funding.
0:14:50.4 JS: And let's back up a little bit and talk about what the current tools in the toolkit are. What actions and what sort of initiatives are you currently doing that are in support of right whales?
0:15:02.9 JH: Thinking about detecting and sort of monitoring the species, our primary tool now is aerial surveys. NOAA has aircraft, and so scientists from NOAA Fisheries get on those aircraft, when they detect a North Atlantic right whale, they'll take a photograph of it. And from that photograph we can identify the individual North Atlantic right whale from patterns of callosities on their head. It's like a fingerprint. So we can say this individual was here on this date, but as you can imagine, the ocean's a big place and there's only 360 approximately right whales left. So the aerial surveys helps us sort of monitor the trends in the species, but it can't give us sort of a full picture of the distribution of the species and the other technology, which is now, we have our aircraft and we also have passive acoustics.
0:16:03.4 JH: So you can put an instrument in the water and it'll just listen and it'll record. Some of our deployments are six months, so it'll record sound for six months. Scientists will listen to it and pull out when they hear a North Atlantic right whale. And so that then gives you a time and place for North Atlantic right whale to help us understand the general patterns of distribution. We also have working with collaborators at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Maine among others, they can do all of that detection in near real time. So you put out a little robot that drives around the ocean, it's listening all the time, and then the computers on the robot are sort of analyzing the recording. And if the computers hear something that they think is a right whale, they can send that via satellite to NOAA Fisheries. And NOAA Fisheries scientists can listen to that little audio clip and say yes or no, North Atlantic right whale. And so that sort of near real time detection is really moving us to a place where we can be much more responsive to where right whales are, not where they're likely to be.
0:17:18.9 JS: And that's already a little mind-blowing. It's a very sophisticated tool. And at the same time you can kind of imagine how advancements in technology could really help both of those tools from AI and machine learning, analyzing those like vast amounts of data collected by these ocean robots or helping in aerial surveys.
0:17:41.5 JH: Yeah, 100%. So AI, artificial intelligence is actually used in both of those applications. A researcher at the Northeast Fishery Science Center worked to develop algorithms to automatically process those aerial images and to make a tentative individual identification. And then on the passive acoustics, analyzing the huge amount of noise data or sound data coming from the ocean and then in near real time saying this could be a right whale and sending it via satellite. Another area that's supported by the Inflation Reduction Act, but which is not, you know, it's a proof of concept. Can we make this work, is using very high resolution satellite images. You can see a car parked in your driveway on Google Maps, right? There are commercial satellites and government satellites that are even higher resolution than that. So can we use that satellite technology to detect North Atlantic right whales in the ocean sort of in near real time similar to passive acoustics. So that type of activity is supported by this Inflation Reduction Act funding. Again, that's still in development. We can see the possibility, but we're not sure we can get there.
0:18:57.4 JS: Are uncrewed aircraft a possibility for the future?
0:19:00.5 JH: Yeah, I mean they, are a possibility for the future, to some extent they're being used now. There's an astonishing video. A researcher working with NOAA Fisheries were out on a boat studying North Atlantic right whales, they launch an uncrewed aerial vehicle and it flies over a North Atlantic right whale, North Atlantic right whale comes up to the surface and then it drops a suction cup tag and it attaches to the whale. And so it's a much less intrusive way to tag, North Atlantic right whales with the tagging technology that we have now. So think about that as you know within a couple of hours, a couple of hundred yards, a mile of a vessel. That's kind of where our uncrewed aerial system operations are now. You can imagine a future where you wouldn't need to have people in an airplane taking photographs, that you could have an uncrewed aerial vehicle flying over the ocean collecting that data. Part of the Inflation Reduction Act funding is support to the office of law enforcement which is part of NOAA Fisheries, and they are looking to use uncrewed aerial systems to enforce speed regulations. Basically it's a speed trap from the air to measure the speed of vessels in those sort of required slow zones.
0:20:26.3 JS: And they might be speed traps, but they're also in service of protecting whales. It's not like they're just going for, they're not going for tickets.
0:20:35.7 JH: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, the way I think about it is these voluntary and required speed zones are kind of like when you're driving through a school zone. That's what these speed zones are. They're trying to have ships slow down in areas where we know right whales are to, one, reduce the risk of the vessel strike and two, to reduce the injury if the vessel does strike a whale.
0:21:01.3 JS: Another bucket of funding from the IRA goes towards on-demand fishing. On-demand or ropeless fishing systems eliminate the need for vertical lines connecting pot and trap gear to surface buoys on the water. Is part of the funding from the IRA meant to help get this technology out to fishermen?
0:21:21.2 JH: We have been working for a number of years. There's a number of different manufacturers. NOAA Fisheries has what we call a gear library. You come to our gear library and you can take out one manufacturer's on-demand gear, another manufacturer's on-demand gear, and another manufacturer's on-demand gear. And then lobstermen or fishermen can then take that gear out and learn how to use it, communicate back to the gear manufacturer. If it did this, it would be easier for me. So in a sense, it's NOAA Fisheries trying to encourage fishermen to use and try out on-demand gear and then provide a mechanism back to the manufacturers for improvement. So some of the IRA funding, Inflation Reduction Act funding, is just to expand the number of fishermen that we can work with and provide training to.
0:22:16.5 JS: Are there any other areas that you're now able to fund that maybe you weren't before?
0:22:21.7 JH: Yeah, so one, another area where we're putting sort of a modest amount of funding in with the North Atlantic Right Whale Inflation Reduction Act funding is environmental DNA. Every animal sheds DNA over time, sheds cells. So you can go take a bottle of water from the ocean, do DNA analysis on it, and determine what species have been in the area. There's been some work primarily with fish. If you take your bottle of water and analyze the DNA, the amount of DNA that you see in your sample is related to the number of fish in the area. So you're starting to go from, there's a fish here to there's a fish here and this is how many there are. And so that's why we've invested just a modest amount of money to continue sort of working to develop, see how possible using environmental DNA to detect North Atlantic right whales really is. And again, our ability to make these investments in sort of like high risk, high reward, we would not have done that if it were not for the Inflation Reduction Act supplemental funding.
0:23:40.9 JS: Well, Dr. Jon Hare, thanks so much for talking with me.
0:23:43.9 JH: My pleasure, John. Good to see you again.
0:23:46.9 JS: Dr. Jon Hare is the director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. And earlier we heard from Dr. Caroline Good of NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. A UME or unusual mortality event was declared for North Atlantic right whales in 2017 and is ongoing. UMEs are declared when there's a significant and unexpected die-off of a marine mammal population and it demands an immediate response. You can find updates, news items and learn much more about North Atlantic right whales and agency conservation efforts at our website, fisheries.noaa.gov. I'm John Sheehan, and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.