My Turn: One way to save right whales

A North Atlantic right whale breaches.

A North Atlantic right whale breaches. NOAA FISHERIES

By JOHANNA NEUMANN

Published: 05-15-2024 5:17 PM

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest whale species in the world. Will we drive them to extinction or save them?

Those of us lucky enough to have taken a whale-watching trip in the Gulf of Maine may have glimpsed the majesty of humpback or minke whales, but only the rare person has spotted the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Right whales are one of our Earth’s great whales. A fully grown adult is about the size of a school bus. A newborn is 14 feet long. Alongside other gentle giants such as the blue, humpback and minke whales, right whales are filter feeders, cruising the Atlantic Ocean and using their baleen to filter zooplankton and tiny crustaceans out of the seawater. They communicate with low-frequency moans and clicks, and can occasionally be seen socializing at the ocean’s surface.

Right whales have lived in the Atlantic for centuries. Scientists estimate that before industrial whaling, 10,000 right whales lived along the Eastern Seaboard. But as “urban whales” that live close to shore and swim slowly (and yield a lot of whale oil), these whales quickly became the “right” whale for Massachusetts’ whalers.

By the 1890s, whaling had nearly driven right whales to extinction. After a 1935 international agreement put an end to hunting right whales, the population began to slowly recover. By 2010 their number was up to 480 individuals. In 2017, the population once again nosedived. Only about 350 right whales are thought to be alive today.

Their largest threat is human activity. 

Right whales are getting hit by boats

Because right whales live close to the coast, have a dark color and low profile, they can be difficult to spot. Boats of all sizes speeding through coastal waters risk hitting whales and their calves.

Just like when a car crashes into a pedestrian, boat strikes can cause serious injuries and death. Since 2017, 16 whales have died or been seriously injured by boats. Since 2020, three right whale calves have died from vessel strikes.

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One of those right whale babies was born in 2019 to Snow Cone, a first-time mother. As she migrated with her calf, he was twice struck by boats. In June of 2020, he was found dead, with propeller scars on his head and tail, and wounds from the rudder and hull along his body.

It’s not just babies. It’s their mothers, too. After a right whale female was found dead off the coast of Virginia in April 2024, researchers from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that “catastrophic” spinal and lower back injuries consistent with a vessel strike, killed her.

Common-sense speed limits could save right whales

Boat strikes are preventable. If boats slow down to 10 knots during migration seasons (spring, summer and early fall), their captains will have enough time to spot whales in the water and avoid collisions.

Right now, only very large boats (65 feet or longer) are required to slow down in certain areas during right whale season. But smaller boats also pose a fatal threat to whales, particularly young ones.

We need to ensure more boats slow down when right whales are near.

This common-sense solution should be familiar to all of us: In school zones, we lower the speed limit so drivers can spot kids dashing into the street and stop. We don’t expect just large trucks to slow down; we expect drivers of all cars to slow down, because we know that even small cars can cause severe injuries.

The Biden administration is considering rules that would help give right whales safe passage along our coast by limiting vessel speeds. Some industry interests oppose the expansion of slow zones to smaller boats, so now is a critical time for people to show support.

Starting next month, canvassers with Environment Massachusetts will go door-to-door in communities across the Pioneer Valley to build public support for protecting whales. If you’re a young person looking for a summer job to help the environment, join our team. And if a canvasser shows up on your door, I hope you’ll join the campaign.

Save right whales, save all whales

Right whales are not the only great whales threatened by vessel strikes. This past weekend, an endangered 44-foot-long sei whale was found dead across the bow of a cruise ship coming into New York. More than 1 in 10 photographed humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine showed evidence of vessel strikes.

When we protect the Atlantic’s most endangered whales, the solutions we implement will help other whales recover as well.

Let’s build a future where the sight of a right whale breaching in the Gulf of Maine isn’t rare — it’s just amazing.

Johanna Neumann of Amherst has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.