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Atlantic Ocean Becoming the Wrong Place for the Right Whales

Wildlife: Collisions with oil tankers pose extinction threat. Submarine technology, whale watchers and other means are used to save them.

September 15, 1996|MICHAEL TIGHE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ABOARD THE RESEARCH VESSEL HALOS — This converted lobster boat sits idle off the Massachusetts coast, bobbing in choppy waters as the skies darken. Its crew searches the horizon for one of the rarest sights on Earth.

The only sounds are the waves sloshing against the hull and the squeals of a yellow-necked gannet overhead.

Then, to the starboard, plumes of water spurt skyward and a "whoosh!" echoes in the damp, cool air off Cape Cod Bay.

"I think that's Stripe!" calls out Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium.

This is an old friend. Aquarium records say Stripe is a 45-foot grandmother who has delivered at least seven calves since 1967. She now accompanies her youngest: a 22-foot male born late last year who "skim feeds" with gaping jaws up to 150 pounds of tiny crustaceans an hour.

They are North Atlantic right whales, whose names tell of their history as a species of whales: They were "right" for hunting--slow, surface dwellers who floated when killed and yielded large quantities of baleen, or whalebone, and blubber.

Thanks to the ecology movement, 300 of them survive. But they face danger anew.

Witness Stripe's calf who, shortly after being spotted by the researchers, starts swimming toward their boat. He stops about 10 yards away and wriggles playfully on his back, his tail slapping the surface. He is like a puppy rolling in the grass.

A century ago, this friskiness invited death from a whaleman's harpoon. Now it invites death from a new enemy--the bows and propellers of ships.

This year has been an especially deadly one for the species. At least six right whales have washed up on the shores of Florida, Georgia and Massachusetts since January, three times the number for all of 1995.

At least three of those six deaths resulted from collisions with ships, prompting researchers to label vessels the harpoons of the 1990s. Without corrective action, the only right whales in the future will be the images on Massachusetts license plates, experts say.

"You could very well see the extinction of this species in our lifetime," says Kraus, who oversees the aquarium's right whale research program.

The unintentional hunters now are the oil supertankers, those behemoth cargo ships and barges plying the seas. Since 1970, at least 14 of the 42 right whale carcasses, or 33%, found along eastern North America resulted from ship collisions, the National Marine Fisheries Service says.

"Our shipping is an issue and always has been," says Doug Beach, protected species coordinator for the fisheries service in Gloucester, Mass. "That's got to be stopped. What we're going to have to do is remove man's impact from the animal."

The fisheries service is attempting to do that through a public-private network stretching from Canada to Florida. The network uses aerial surveys, Cold War technology, revenues from license plates, 35-millimeter cameras and binoculars in Florida's Space Coast condominiums.

"The right whale is one of the two marine mammal species given the highest priority," says P. Michael Payne, head of the agency's marine mammal division, which spent $950,000 on right whales last year. "What happened this year made us more aware of what we need to be doing."

Right whales have been on Earth at least 10 million years, twice as long as humans. They can reach 55 feet, weigh 70 tons and live more than 50 years.

The peak of the right whale fishing industry was 1851, when about 10.3 million gallons of oil from about 5,450 whales were harvested by ships from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.

A typical right whale yielded up to 600 pounds of baleen--the bristly food strainers converted to corsets and parasols--and 1,890 gallons of oil for lamps, lubricants and soaps.

In his 1907 work, "A History of the American Whale Fishery," Walter Tower wrote, "The foundation of many a stately old mansion in New England rests on 'oil and bone.' "

But writer Herman Melville considered the right whales "an inferior article in commerce" that were killed while looking for sperm whales.

"I wonder what the old man wants with this lump of foul lard," one of Captain Ahab's mates says in "Moby Dick."

Right whales were considered commercially extinct by the late 19th century and received international protection from hunting in 1935.

The survivors later were traced to three mothers, which may have created genetic glitches in the current population, slowing their reproduction. Researchers believe those genetic glitches can be corrected if the gene pool expands. So they are trying to put yield signs at the deadly intersection of commerce and biology.

In the winter, females calve near ports in Jacksonville, Cape Canaveral and Fernandina Beach in Florida, and Brunswick and Savannah, Ga. In the spring, the whales feed in the Great South Channel--the main shipping route into Boston--and Cape Cod Bay before heading to Canada's Bay of Fundy and parts unknown.

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