Bloomberg Law
May 26, 2020, 9:00 AM

Pandemic Rules Make Saving Right Whales Tougher, Researchers Say

James Munson
James Munson
Freelance Correspondent

A multiyear, cross-border collaboration to stop the decline of North Atlantic right whales faces challenges this summer because of rules enacted to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Strained resources have forced Canada’s federal government to cut back some monitoring flights over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while bans on large gatherings and closed international and provincial borders will interrupt valuable research into what’s killing the species and hinder whale rescue missions, say conservationists.

“If there are no deaths detected, is that because they’re weren’t enough people looking?” said Philip Hamilton, research scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, part of Boston’s New England Aquarium.

Canada has put in place special protections like ship speed limits and fishery closures for the endangered species since 2017, when 12 whales died in the Gulf from a combination of ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Another nine died in the same area in 2019.

The first whales of the season were spotted in Canadian waters by federal surveillance plans on May 3, migrating from their calving grounds along the coasts of Georgia and Florida. Canada enacted its first snow crab and lobster fishery closures May 17.

400 Whales Left

Only around 400 of the whales remain, and their recovery from the whaling era has been much worse than that of their southern Atlantic cousins, a recent Danish study found.

U.S. scientists, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have worked closely with Canadian counterparts on tracking and protecting the whales.

But public health rules stemming from the pandemic will put several obstacles in conservationists’ way this year, including the loss of research normally done by performing surveys at sea, Hamilton said.

Canadian and U.S. researchers make two trips in the Gulf each summer to take up-close photographs and collect samples from the whales. The trips are critical for finding out key details about their health and how many whales calved over the winter, Hamilton said.

Data ‘Lost Forever’

The July trip has been canceled, while one in August could still happen, he said.

Losing the surveys will dilute research that has allowed scientists to know what kind of fishing gear is entangling whales and which segments of the population are dying, including the finding that 25% of the whales are entangled every year, Hamilton said.

“It’s data that will be lost forever,” he added.

Researchers still don’t know whether they’ll be considered an essential service under Canadian rules and be allowed to cross the U.S. border, he said.

Canada’s department of Fisheries and Oceans has been informing NOAA of how public health rules will impact the U.S. agency’s eventual work in Canada, and it will consider all whale incidents on a case-by-case basis, spokesman Benoit Mayrand wrote in an email May 20.

NOAA will perform any surveys in accordance with public health rules and is using a risk-based approach to conduct its work, a spokesperson with the agency said on background.

Whale Necropsies

Necropsies on dead whales, which have been crucial for researchers to convince government officials that the species need protecting, also won’t be as rigorous because of Covid-19, Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society in Halifax, said in an interview, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Typical whale necropsies involve between 20 and 40 people, many of whom operate heavy machinery; that won’t be possible this year because several provinces in the region have banned gatherings of more than five people, Wimmer said.

The team of pathologists that support the necropsies in the region are based in Prince Edward Island and currently wouldn’t be allowed to cross into other provinces, she added.

Moira Brown, a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, predicts her New Brunswick group will have to give greater consideration toward deciding which whales to save if one is spotted entangled at sea. The rescue missions often rely on support from federal vessels, which provide extra safety in choppy and unpredictable waters.

“As to how it all plays out, we’ll see when we get our first call,” Brown said in an interview.

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