Today, there are less than 350 North Atlantic Right Whales in existence. Since 1997 the Canadian Whale Institute has been devoted to protecting these animals from extinction. We had the opportunity to chat with Senior Scientist Moira Brown about their vital work.
Moira's role ranges from research to physically detangling whales from rope and netting to advocating with their team and other stakeholders for conservation measures and operational change by mariners that offer protection.
Here are seven fascinating and inspiring things about the Canadian Whale Institute's work that came from our conversation.
1. Unstable Population
When Moira began working with the whales 37 years ago, roughly only 200 Right Whales were in existence. Until 2009 the population showed - not steady - but an overall growth trend and reached a peak of approximately 500 in 2009.
However, in 2010 the population began to decline—the two factors are deaths from human related activities (vessel strike and entanglements in fishing gear) and irregular reproduction numbers from year to year. In 2017 alone, 12 whales died in Canadian waters and another five more in the US. The following year no calves were born.
As of this year, 11 calves have been born among the North Atlantic Right Whales population. Regrettably, one calf was discovered without its mother and was subsequently found deceased in January. Nonetheless, there is optimism for a revival of the population, especially after the birth of 15 calves in 2022. Right whales don’t start breeding until at least age nine for females and 15 for males. Protection measures throughout the whales’ range is critical for increasing the breeding population.
2. Migration and Mystery
For over three decades, the North Atlantic Right Whale migrated from the calving ground in southeast Florida to feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine and then onto the Bay of Fundy and around Nova Scotia. Some individuals have been known to go as far as Iceland, Norway and the Azores.
Moira and the Canadian Whale Institute team focus on the feeding areas in Canadian waters. After spending the late winter and early spring in and around Cape Cod Bay, the whales migrate across the Gulf of Maine, and now – encouraged by climate change affecting their planktonic food supply – more are bypassing the Bay of Fundy and heading up to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Several big mysteries remain despite years of study; researchers still have no idea where about half the population goes during the summer months, where right whales mate, and where the non-calving animals spend the winter months.
3. Identifying Threats
Generally, the study of animals includes learning about behaviour, day-to-day activities, and their interactions with others of the same species.
When focusing on an endangered animal, some of that takes a backseat. Instead, it is essential to learn as much as possible about where the animal is, when it’s there, and what is causing it disturbance, severe injury, and mortality. Right whales and their life history information is compiled in a photo identification catalogue. Right whales can be individually distinguished from photographs of their unique markings or callosities, raised and rough patches of skin on the top and sides of their heads. This ability to track information on individual right whales over time allows researchers to then work with the humans involved in the activities causing the danger and with the government to try and develop, implement, and monitor conservation measures to help protect it.
4. Collaboration and Policy Change
In 2000, the Canadian Whale Institute brought together all active stakeholders utilizing the same waters as the North Atlantic Right Whale. They invited representatives from shipping, fishing, whale watching, environmental groups, recreational boaters, the Coast Guard, Canadian military, and others.
The result was a truly collaborative effort with some volunteering to team up with the Canadian Whale Institute in collaboration with Dalhousie University to develop a proposal for Transport Canada for submission to the International Maritime Organization. The request was to move the shipping lanes to reduce whale strikes, and - although no one thought it would be - it was successful, and there hasn’t been a vessel strike in the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy since the amendment was implemented in 2003. In 2007, the same stakeholders and collaborators provided the justification for Transport Canada to submit a second proposal to the International Maritime Organization for a recommendatory Area to be Avoided south of Nova Scotia which was implemented for the Roseway Basin Critical Habitat area in 2008.
Entanglement is another major threat to whales, with over 85% of the North Atlantic Right Whales displaying scars from encounters with ropes and nets. The entanglements can make it difficult for the whales to swim, eat, and surface and some die as a result.
Moira is one of only five expert whale disentanglers recognized by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and is a Campobello Whale Rescue Team member. Formed in 2002 and brought under the Canadian Whale Institute umbrella in 2014, most of the team are fishers who want to give back.
While disentangling the animals is an integral part of preserving the North Atlantic Right Whales, there are limitations. Only the whales spotted in distress can be helped, and the team is only successful in getting them completely gear free about half the time.
6. New Technology
Climate change has forced the whales to find a new habitat. Their recent location in the deep waters of the Shediac Valley in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence overlaps with the snow crab fishery season – an economically important local fishery.
One solution to this conflict is the new technology that the Canadian Whale Institute demonstrates at tradeshows. The system allows the fishers to drop their crab pots to the bottom of the ocean with no ropes running to the surface. The rope and buoy deploy on-demand with a remote feature, reducing the risk of whale entanglement because the lines extend to the surface only when the pots are retrieved.
While the equipment is expensive and requires an experimental fishing license, fishers can access closed areas during their short season, which has been a great incentive. In 2020, five boats using this technology brought snow crab to market.
7. The Right Safety Gear
Much of the work Moira and the team do requires loads of time out on the ocean in their Mustang Survival Catalyst gear.
“Right Whales don’t go to the Caribbean. They stay in water that is maybe plus five or plus 10 when it really warms up. We’re out in small boats, especially when doing disentanglement operations, and we’re thrilled to have Mustang Survival gear. I’ve never had such good gear in all my years of chasing whales; it keeps us warm, dry, and safe.”
The Catalyst Flotation Jacket and Pants offer an excellent range of motion and the ability to control the temperature, which is necessary for the physical work of disentangling. Additionally, the system provides flotation and insulation should anyone accidentally go overboard in the cold Atlantic waters.
Moving shipping lanes and protecting habitat areas have been huge wins for the North Atlantic Right Whale. Still, Moira gives the fishing industry a lot of the credit for altering their operations and making room for the whales to recover. Conservation efforts won't be sustainable without changes from those working and recreating on the water. The collaborative efforts over the last few decades make Moira hopeful they will figure out a way to safely coexist with the whales so they may increase their numbers.
For more information on the Canadian Whale Institute and their efforts to save the North Atlantic Right Whale, visit their site: