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SMU-aided right whale death study: Ropeless gear needed to give population a chance


A North Atlantic right whale is tangled in fishing rope off Massachusetts. Researchers say a recent study proves most right whales die because of human activity. - File
A North Atlantic right whale is tangled in fishing rope off Massachusetts. Researchers say a recent study proves most right whales die because of human activity. - File

There are about 410 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

Biologist Tim Frasier has the genetic “names” for most of them in his database at Saint Mary’s University.

“We have samples from about 80 per cent of the whole species, almost everyone,” Frasier said in an interview Tuesday from his lab.

The samples include the DNA of the many animals that have been killed in recent years. A recent study, which used data from Frasier’s database, indicates the vast majority of North Atlantic right whale deaths can be linked with people.

According to the study led by Sarah Sharp of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, nearly 90 per cent of whales whose cause of death could be determined were killed in incidents such as fishing line entanglements and collisions with cruise ships and container vessels.

The study looked at 70 whales that died between 2003 and 2018 — the cause of death was determined for 43 of them, according to the study released last week in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

Because the North Atlantic right whale population is so small, usually they can be identified through photos and records of skin pigmentation patterns.

“But a lot of times with the dead ones, by the time they get good pictures or they’re found, they’re too decomposed to be recognized,” said Frasier, an expert in conservation genetics who has worked with the Saint Mary’s endangered animal DNA database for about 20 years.

Besides the right whales, the database includes DNA from the St. Lawrence beluga, grey whales from the West Coast of Canada, and the colony of horses on Sable Island.

“Every year we get an influx of samples from all the (North Atlantic right whale) field teams,” he said. “We analyze . . . about just under 40 regions of their DNA and based on that we can get an individual’s genetic profile.

“It’s the same idea of human genetic typing. You get DNA from a crime scene and you have your suspects and you compare the DNA from your suspects to the crime scene.”

Humans a hindrance to life, reproduction

Experts and the curious examining a dead North Atlantic right whale that was towed up onto a P.E.I. beach in 2017 so that a necropsy could be performed. - File
Experts and the curious examining a dead North Atlantic right whale that was towed up onto a P.E.I. beach in 2017 so that a necropsy could be performed. - File

The IFAW study “demonstrates unequivocally” that right whales can’t live full, productive lives “because they are dying prematurely as the result of human activities,” Sharp said in a news release on the study.

“The high number of deaths is not sustainable for this small population. The good news however, is that these mortalities are preventable if targeted and aggressive mitigation measures are enacted immediately by the U.S. and Canada.”

These measures include the use of ropeless fishing gear systems, which use sonar signals between fishing gear on the bottom and the vessel to trigger buoy placements. This reduces the time that the rope needs to stay in the water, thus reducing the risk of entanglements.

The IFAW also wants vessel speed restrictions to be expanded to include larger areas of right whale habitat and more management strategies such as fisheries closures.

The executive director of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union said his industry is doing its best to reduce the toll on this endangered animal.

While Martin Mallet said technologies such as ropeless fishing are in their infancy, recent changes include adjusting fishing seasons to reduce interaction with the whales and rolling closures of certain zones to fishing.

“Already we’re now seeing some effects of the measures we put in place a few years ago,” Mallet said in an interview Tuesday.

“Last year there were no whale deaths reported connected with the fishery. ... But (we’ve implemented) some of the measures that were recommended by the scientists and the science community a few years ago and it’s been working.”

Most recently the carcass of a dead North Atlantic right whale, originally spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, has been towed to a Cape Breton beach for a necropsy.

“What we learn from this species, it’ll help us learn how we do effective conservation for other species too,” Frasier said.

“We’re learning what works and what doesn’t work with the right whales and that has applications for all sorts of things. I kind of worry about right whales being in the news a lot,... and I think that people need to get that it’s bigger than that and what we learn from this will be relevant to other endangered species.”

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