Whales Win Right-of-Way in Atlantic Shipping Lanes

Simone Swink
National Geographic Today
March 5, 2003
When a ship and a northern right whale collide, the whale loses.

The heavily traveled commercial shipping lanes in Canada's Bay of Fundy—between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—run through right whale feeding grounds. But now the whales, and the conservation movement, have scored a significant victory.

The Northern right whale is the most endangered large whale in the world—only 300 to 350 of the animals still exist. Even one death affects the population—and, on average, a collision with a boat kills at least one of these whales every year.

Starting in July, the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy will shift four nautical miles east—just before the whales arrive for their seasonal feast on plankton in the Grand Manan Basin, a region of the Bay.

An international collaboration of Canadian and U.S. government agencies, oil shippers, fisheries and research scientists created the change.

"Now the majority of whales will be playing on a country road rather than a downtown street," says Moira Brown, a Canadian marine biologist and director of right whale studies at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., who spearheaded the four-year campaign to reroute the lanes. "The move to the east reduces the relative possibility (of a collision between ship and whale) by 80 percent."

Northern right whales migrate from the frigid, nutrient-rich waters of the Bay of Fundy to calving grounds off the coast of Florida and Georgia.

Right Whale Briefings

The Bay of Fundy is the prime feeding ground between late July and October, when up to a third of the entire right whale population gathers there. The bay also is the largest supertanker port for oil products between Louisiana and Saint John, New Brunswick.

"(The shipping lanes are) a two lane highway, ships going north on one side, south on other side," says John Logan a spokesman for Irving Oil, a primary user of ports in the Bay of Fundy. The right whale feeds at the point where the lanes turn into the bay.

For 13 years Brown had seen the perilous passage in the bay while she photographed whales for the New England Aquarium in Boston. Later she did her doctoral studies in the Bay, where she fired a crossbow from a boat to obtain skin samples from whales for genetic studies.

Brown enlisted colleagues in the US and Canada to develop a proposal, part of a broader "Right Whale Recovery Plan" led by Canada's federal department Fisheries and Oceans, to change the shipping routes. They held "right whale briefings" for shipping and fishing-industry officials in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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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