Whales Win Right-of-Way in Atlantic Shipping Lanes

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Brown's team established a working group that included Transport Canada, a federal agency that controls maritime transportation; Fisheries and Oceans; and shipping industry officials.

The team put together a proposal for moving the shipping lanes and submitted it to the International Maritime Organization, based in London, in February 2002. The IMO officially approved the proposal on Dec. 5, 2002.

Right Whales Fail to Respond to Ship Noise

"The move should be applauded," says Peter Tyack, a behavioral ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who has spent the last two summers tagging right whales in the Bay of Fundy. "It takes a lot of effort to move international shipping lanes."

Tyack, experimenting with ship engine sounds in the Bay of Fundy, tested how the whales reacted to shipping noise. "We found that when we broadcast the sound of ships, they just didn't respond," he says. "They never moved out of the way—a striking lack of response (to warnings) compared to other whales like the humpback, for example."

"If the whales won't move away from the ships the only solution is to move the ships away from the whales," Tyack adds.

"Ships can't drive around whales either," Brown notes. "Some tankers are the length of three football fields. They need at least 10 minutes notice and two miles to stop or change direction."

Perhaps as many as 50,000 right whales once swam in the northern Atlantic Ocean. But whalers hunted them so aggressively in the 19th century for their oil and bones that the species plummeted to levels of commercial extinction.

The whales were easy targets for whalers—they fed and swam slowly, close to the water surface, and were dubbed the "right" whale to hunt. The right whale became the first whale species to be given international protection beginning in the 1930s.

Whale expert Hal Caswell, a population biologist at Woods Hole, points out that conservation doesn't have to turn the clock back to pre-whaling days. "In 1980 the population of right whales was growing," Caswell says. "Saving just two right whales per year could turn the population around."

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