Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Whale Of A Week

Famous Orca Goes Missing. Researchers are concerned that there has been no sighting of the orca designated J14 (also known as “Samish”) in several weeks, possibly indicating that she has died. J14 is a 42-year-old matriarch of the J pod of Southern Resident orcas, the unique group of orcas that live off the Pacific northwest coast. These orcas have been under severe stress, as pollution and drought impact their primary food source: Chinook salmon. Read more about J14 and the other Southern Resident orcas >

Humpback Whales DelistedDespite Ongoing Challenges Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently announced that nine of the 14 populations of humpback whales are to be delisted – removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While many are touting this as a success story, our experts are concerned that this move is too much to soon. While humpback whale numbers have certainly grown over the years (a testament to what the ESA can do for imperiled species), that is not by itself a reason to delist. NMFS’s decision fails to take the best available science on humpback whales into account. At the same time, it doesn’t account for the ongoing threats that these whales face, including habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and more. Without addressing those threats, it is simply too soon to strip these whales of ESA protection. Read more about the delisting >

Martha's Story

Endangered Whales’ Baby Bust Is Linked to Fishing Gear Entanglement. Researchers think injuries North Atlantic right whales suffer from fishing lines could be responsible for a 40 percent drop in their birthrate.
Researchers conducting photo identification of North Atlantic right whales. (Photo: Getty Images)
Is the endangered North Atlantic right whale on the road to recovery or isn’t it?

A new paper suggests that deaths from fishing gear entanglement and a 40 percent drop in the birthrate over the past five years have contributed to the population’s sluggish growth and increased its “vulnerability to extinction.”

Even more ominously, the entanglements and low birthrate may be related.

That gloomy assessment follows a more upbeat statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in January that said, “We’re making significant progress in reversing the population decline of the species, and are seeing signs of recovery.”

But the whales “are not yet a conservation success story,” researchers wrote in a paper published in the recent issue of Frontiers in Marine Science.

“Right whales need immediate and significant management intervention to reduce mortalities and injuries from fishing gear,” the paper’s authors wrote, “and managers need a better understanding about the causes of reduced calving rates before this species can be considered on the road to recovery.”

The whales were listed as endangered in 1973 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They were near extinction in 1935, when hunting them was banned, and they rebounded to about 295 animals by 1992.

By 2010, there were an estimated 500 whales, a growth rate of about 2.8 percent a year—encouraging but far below the estimated rate of 6 to 7 percent among right whale populations in other regions.

One likely reason: fishing gear.

“Despite a nearly 20-year U.S. federal effort to reduce accidental kills of whales in fishing gear, sub-lethal and lethal entanglement rates have increased,” the authors wrote.

Entanglement rates have been fairly steady in recent years, with 15.5 percent of the animals on average showing new scars each year. But the rate of serious entanglements is increasing, and so is the total percentage of right whales killed.

Between 1970 and 2009, forty-four percent of diagnosed right whale deaths were caused by ship strikes, while 35 percent were from entanglements.

In 2008, new vessel speed restrictions were placed in areas whales frequent, and ship-strike deaths dropped dramatically, to just 15 percent between 2010 and 2015. Entanglement deaths spiked to 85 percent, even though total annual mortality from human activity, about 4.3 deaths, remained unchanged.

“That may be an underestimate,” said Scott Kraus, the paper’s lead author and vice president of the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “We don’t see bodies that often on the beach. They die offshore and disappear.”

When right whales go missing, they are not counted as dead for six years, making recent mortality rates impossible to calculate, Kraus said.

There are at least two possible reasons why severe and potentially lethal entanglements are becoming more common.

Record warm temperatures in the Gulf of Maine may have changed migration patterns of prey fish, causing the whales to travel more to find food.

“The more you travel, the more you increase the risk of entanglement,” Kraus said. “There are also probably more encounters with offshore gear, which tends to be heavier and uses more heavy ropes, so the injury rate is going up.”

The ropes have also become stronger. In the 1990s, manufacturers introduced “poly-steel” rope that is much harder to break. “By the early 2000s, we started seeing more severe entanglements and more mortality,” Kraus said.

The New England Aquarium is working to develop ropes that break away when they entangle whales.

Then there’s the birthrate, which has fallen by about 40 percent since 2010, Kraus and his colleagues estimate. No one is sure why, but again, fishing gear might be involved.

“Imagine a whale with rope around its tail for a few weeks or months with cuts six centimeters deep,” he said. “Now it has to recover and devote metabolic resources to do so, and it may have been unable to travel and feed and isn’t putting on enough fat. That actually interferes with reproduction in females.”

Dispersed prey and reproductive diseases are other possible explanations, he said.

Kraus said NOAA has not taken into account the low birthrate data, which he hopes will be published this year.

“NOAA has ignored it because it’s not in the peer-reviewed literature, so we decided to publish it so it would be out there,” he said.

NOAA Fisheries said in a statement that the agency shared the researchers’ concerns: “We look forward to working with them and others to better understand right whale status and the factors that may be holding back recovery.”
End Japan’s Deadly WhalingTarget: Hiroshi Moriyama, Minister of Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries
Goal: Stop killing hundreds of whales under the guise of “research.”Click to Help
In nine months, Japanese whalers have killed 333 minke whales, over 200 of which were pregnant. The Japanese whaling fleet has defended its actions by arguing it kills whales in order to better research them and their populations. The “researchers” argue that they are studying the best ways to “manage” these populations and their food supplies. Killing the whales is, apparently, their best method of “research.”
The United Nations International Court of Justice has already said that Japan’s whaling does not fall under the international community’s “scientific research exemption.” Instead, the international community believes that Japan is killing whales for commercial purposes. In 2014, the Court of Justice ordered Japan to end its whaling practices and its “research.” Japan, however, has rejected these orders.
Since 2014, Japan has introduced a new “research” program in which it will kill 333 whales annually for “research” purposes. Their new program, which will last 12 years, is forecasted to kill 4,000 minke whales.
If Japanese scientists want to study the population and food supplies of minke whales, surely a depletion in their population would make their studies extremely difficult. There is no way that killing any animal can help in its research. Japan, however, has continued to use this faulty argument, despite international outcry. Sign the petition to urge the Minister of Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to bring an end to this deadly and destructive practice. If scientists want to research whales, it is best if they are alive and thriving in their natural habitat. Click to Help
Meet Corky: The Saddest Orca