Written by Adrianne Madden
April 23, 2009
It's amazing how so few northern right whales can find so much trouble.
The endangered northern right whale population is numbered at around 300. And given how few right whales there are and how vast the Atlantic Ocean is, you'd think they'd be able to steer well clear of potential problems. But their migratory patterns lead them to run afoul of ships and fishing gear.
Sunday afternoon, as it was returning to port, the 50-foot NOAA research vessel Auk, working for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, accidentally collided with a right whale outside the sanctuary, about 7 miles east of Scituate, Mass.
Reportedly, three crew members served as lookouts outside the bridge, but the whale, floating beneath the surface, escaped detection until the vessel was about 10 feet from hitting it. A propeller lacerated the whale's left fluke, but the whale didn't appear to be in distress.
If so, then the whale cheated the Grim Reaper. A 2008 NOAA report on reducing right whale ship strikes says 89 percent of serious injuries and whale mortalities that occur from collisions involve vessels traveling in excess of 16 mph; the Auk reportedly was running at 22 mph when Sunday's collision occurred. Moreover, ship strikes account for the majority of right whale fatalities.
Yet it's hard to fault the Auk for the incident, which genuinely upset the crew. And the NOAA report suggests right whales have a knack for putting themselves in harm's way.
"Presumably, right whales are either unable to detect approaching vessels or they ignore them when involved in important activities such as feeding, nursing, or mating," the NOAA study notes. "Additionally, right whales are very buoyant and slow swimmers, which may make it difficult for them to avoid an oncoming vessel even if they are aware of its approach. Finally, given the density of ship traffic and the distribution of right whales, overlap is nearly inevitable, thereby increasing the probability of a collision even if either the whale or the vessel actively tries to avoid it."
Officials map out new shipping routes, order Northeast lobstermen to undertake a costly swap of floating rope for sinking rope, and decree when fishing gear can and cannot be deployed in certain areas, all in an effort to save the struggling right whale stock. One can only hope the whales are equally interested in saving themselves.
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