The Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported last week that North Atlantic Right Whales have returned to Canadian waters a month early this year (they typically arrive in June). Spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from a surveillance plane, the whales brought a little surprise something along with them. 7 little somethings, to be exact: 7 new calves!
Why is this significant? North Atlantic Right Whales are a critically endangered species. With their population estimated at just 411 individuals, this makes them the most endangered whale species in the world. And last year in 2018, no new calves were born at all.
What caused the decline and what’s behind the good news this year?
A History of Human Interference
In the past, Right Whales were considered the ‘right’ whale to hunt, which caused their species to run into serious threats from humans. From the 17th century through to the 19th century, their populations were devastated by whalers looking for their plentiful oil and baleen (a comb-like strainer of bristles used to ensnare food while they swim), which were used to make corsets, buggy whips and other consumable goods. In 1949, all species of Right Whales came under complete international protection, ending the mass murder. Since then, Southern Right Whale populations have made a more encouraging come back than their Northern counterparts.
In recent years, the trouble they’ve faced is from collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing nets. Right Whales are a migratory species, moving seasonally to breed and find food. The part of their migration route that takes them through the east coast of the United States and Canada happens to take them through some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes - or rather, our shipping lanes happen to cut through this majestic species migration route.
Because Right Whales feed on plankton, any fishing net or gear in the path of their wide open mouths puts them in danger of entanglement. They can be freed from these ropes, but only if discovered in time.
Female Right Whales do not become sexually mature until 10 years of age and give birth to one calf after a year-long pregnancy. Historically, females only give birth once every four years, but that has now stretched to up to ten years. This slow population growth coupled with human-created risk factors has become a recipe for extinction.
The return of the North Atlantic Right Whales with their 7 newborns in tow is being met with reserved optimism from the scientific community:
“It’s really nice to start seeing that we’re getting more calves. It’s gonna take a lot more before we’re going to be feeling at all comfortable, but it does help to have some. It’s a much better view than what we had last year.”
— Garry Stenson, a DFO research scientist and head of its marine mammal division via CBC.ca
In response to 18 Right Whale deaths in 2017 - 12 of those in Canadian waters - the federal government was prompted to implement fishing restrictions in some areas and regulations to slow down vessel traffic in shipping lanes.
While experts say it’s still too early to pin the new calves on such regulations and restrictions - they need to look at data over a number of years to see whether or not there's any change in mortality and birth rates - it seems to be an encouraging sign. Where 12 North Atlantic Right Whales died in Canadian waters in 2017, the death toll was zero in 2018, the year new federal regulations were put in place.
"Were we lucky? Or were the protection measures really the right ones? I think it's a little bit of both. By working together it appears that we are making a difference for these species in Canadian waters compared to what happened in 2017."
- Moira Brown, senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute and Campobello Whale Rescue Team via CBC.ca
Not only are the new baby Right Whales an encouraging sign, but perhaps a new way of approaching the relationship humans have with nature while simultaneously reframing our approach to action. When we make space for nature and take measured steps to change destructive human-made disruptions, nature can (and does) bounce back.
The Versova Beach cleanup is a great example of this. Once a nesting ground for sea turtles, Versova Beach became completely clogged and littered with single-use plastics and garbage. In response, the turtles stopped coming to nest. Sparked by one man and labeled the largest beach cleanup project in the world, it took a team of volunteers 96 hours to cleanse the unbelievable amount of plastic and other single-use debris from the beach.
They removed 5 million kilograms of waste in 85 weeks. And lo and behold, for the first time in decades, a rare species of sea turtle called Olive Ridley Turtles nested again on Versova Beach. Hatchlings covered the sand for a week as they made their way back to the shore.
The hole in Earth’s Ozone Layer is, of course, another epic example. In case you don’t know the full story here’s the Cole’s Notes: in the 1980s, scientists discovered a hole in the layer around our planet that protects us and all life on Earth from radiation poisoning from the sun. The hole was above Antartica and scientists determined it had been caused largely by human-produced chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). In first-of-its-kind research, scientists have directly linked the decreasing ozone depletion to the decrease in the presence of chlorine from CFCs.
“We don’t know enough to say it’s too late. The challenge for humanity is to pull back and give nature a chance.”
— David Suzuki, in the documentary Beyond Climate
The above quote from David Suzuki was in response to large amounts of spawning salmon returning to the river behind his house after conservation efforts had been implemented. Suzuki tells this story in the documentary Beyond Climate, where he says he never thought it was possible for the salmon to return, despite conservation efforts. But they did.
The point is when we stop looking at the problems we face as a war between humans and nature, and instead reframe the approach as a process of working with nature to give it the space it needs to flourish, the healing the natural world is capable of is beyond what many of us can grasp.
Yes, the planet is heating up, the icebergs are melting and the waters are rising. One million species may be facing extinction. We may have just over a decade to make the changes necessary to stop runaway climate change. There is no question that we - and our planet - face challenges in the coming decades.
But we need to stop looking at ourselves as the problem and start understanding that we are also a part of nature. And the same regenerative properties that exists in nature’s systems also exist in us. Yes, we are all part of the problem. But we can just as easily - and just as quickly - become part of the solution.
7 baby Right Whales just entered Canadian waters. They’re counting on us to make the right choices. How will you take #ActionForWater? Let us know!
Looking for ways to educate others about species conservation?
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