On March 21st, 2021, the Center for Coastal Studies spotted 89 North Atlantic Right Whales in Cape Cod Bay, including three mothers with calves. The waters around Cape Cod offer some of the largest concentrations of this species, which can grow up to 60 feet long and generally travel alone or in small groups. They live along the east coast of North America, moving between the warm waters of their southern calving grounds and the plankton rich waters of the Northwest Atlantic, where they feed on plankton and mate.
The sightings this spring were a hopeful sign for what is a critically endangered species. Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies estimates that there are only 356 individuals left, with less than 100 reproductive females remaining. The species teeters on the edge of extinction, though there are many valiant efforts ongoing to try to save the whales.
Historically North Atlantic Right Whales were hunted, first by native people and then by Basque and other European whalers, even gaining their name because they were the ‘right’ whale to hunt. With no dorsal fins the species is slow moving, and floats when killed. These features made it a favorite among whalers who harvested the animals for oil and their baleen, (also called whalebone).
Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America in the Time of Discovery explains, “Whalebone was a kind of Middle Ages plastic, used for skirt hoops, knife handles, bristles for brushes, buggy whips, strapping for beds, and just about anything else. A single right whale has over a thousand pounds of whalebone hanging in its mouth, enough to pay for a transatlantic voyage, ship, crew, and all. And that still leaves the ninety barrels of oil from each whale as pure profit.”
By the 16th century whale populations were already reduced by native and European whalers. As the European whaling ships disappeared a new American whaling industry sprung into existence out of the ports of New England. Nantucket came to be known as the whaling capital of the world, causing the island to become prosperous and right whale populations continue on their decline.
The 1949 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling put an end to the hunting of right whales and the species was listed as endangered beginning in 1970. Though humans are no longer hunting the species deliberately, whales today are still facing dangers of human interactions and are categorized as critically endangered. The primary threats to these coastal whales are ship strike and entanglement in fishing gear.
NOAA has categorized an ongoing period that began in 2017 as an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for the species. Using aerial and vessel monitoring, they have estimated that 49 whales were either killed or documented with severe and likely life-threatening injuries since 2017. This loss amounts to over 10% of the population. NOAA Fisheries also notes that the combination of low birth rates and high mortality rates of North Atlantic Right Whales is a recipe for extinction. Between 2017 and 2020 just 22 calves were born, and 32 whales were found dead, many as a result of ship strike or entanglement. Two calves have already been killed this season, both instances caused by ship strike. With the population so low the loss of each individual is a blow.
Despite the dire situation, many organizations are working together to protect the species with the hopes of their population rebounding. On the fishing gear entanglement front, groups work to locate, and de-tangle whales caught in fishing gear. The whales can’t see the lines of the gear and become tangled in the ropes, dragging the fishing gear behind them for miles. Often the ropes cut into the whale’s skin, leading to deadly infections. The whales can also drown due to exhaustion from dragging the gear or starve to death because the tangle of gear inhibits their feeding and diving. Groups are working to further regulate fishing gear, and some are pioneering ropeless fishing gear in hopes of protecting the species. Though the gear may have promise, it has been met with wide skepticism from the fishing and lobstering industry who cite the cost, time, and reliability issues of the gear.
On the issue of ship strike, vessels of any sort, from paddleboards to drones to whale watching boats are not permitted within 500 yards of right whales. A partnership has also come together to create the Whale Alert App, allowing mariners to note whale sightings, warning other vessels to slow down to avoid collisions. Cape Cod Cay, and the waters around Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have mandatory speed restriction of 10 knots or less until May 15th to protect the right whales and their calves.
Groups on Cape Cod working to prevent the extinction of the North Atlantic Right Whale include IFAW, the Center for Coastal Studies, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and others.
NOAA encourages boaters to report all right whale sightings either by phone at 866-755-6622, to the Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16, or on the WhaleAlert app. The Center for Coastal Studies requests that those who spot entangled whales call 800-900-3622. Visitors looking to learn more about all the whales that frequent the waters around Cape Cod and the Islands can enjoy whale watching tours, or visit some of the many science centers, aquariums, and museums with exhibits on the subject.