It’s been a catastrophic year for the North Atlantic right whale, the world’s second-most endangered marine mammal, and recent developments have done little to relieve researchers’ anxiety about the species’ future.

Last summer and fall, 17 right whales were found dead around Cape Cod and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where many of the whales have recently started showing up to feed, possibly because they are having trouble finding food in the waters off Lubec and Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. The spate of deaths represented more than 3 percent of the species’ total population of 450, prompting scientists to warn that they could become functionally extinct by 2040 if things don’t turn around. Researchers had previously estimated the species could withstand only one human-caused death a year, though five to six died annually between 2010 and 2014.

Last week, Canada’s public broadcaster reported 14 ships – including three cruise ships that had called on Maine ports – had been fined for violating emergency speed limits imposed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect the whales. Another 78 cases are under investigation.

Meanwhile, 1,500 miles to the south, whale researchers have been waiting in vain for pregnant females to be sighted in their calving grounds off the Atlantic coasts of north Florida and Georgia. Bad weather has kept aerial surveys on the ground for much of past three weeks, so scientists are hopeful that the whales are actually there, but the federal government shutdown will keep one and possibly both of the survey planes grounded until Congress can resolve the impasse.

“We could have right whales out there, but we just don’t know, because we haven’t been able to detect them, or we may not have any or very few whales down here,” said Barb Zoodsma, a right whale biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Regional Field Office, from her office in Fernandina Beach, Florida. “I’m just going to be anxious to see what happens once we have more surveys.”

Zoodsma said the two aircraft used to survey the whales’ grounds – one based at St. Simons Island, Georgia, the other in St. Augustine, Florida – don’t fly when strong winds cover the sea in whitecaps because it is nearly impossible to see the whales in those conditions. NOAA’s Georgia-based Twin Otter would be grounded by a shutdown, she said, while the Florida team’s situation was unclear, as they were state workers funded by federal dollars.

In a separate development, three national environmental groups filed suit against NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court Thursday, saying it had failed to protect the right whales as required by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States are asking the court to order the federal agency to implement new measures that would prevent right whales “from suffering further painful and deadly entanglements in lobster gear.”

‘SAVING ONE WHALE AT A TIME’

North Atlantic right whales – whose pre-whaling-era population was thought to have exceeded 21,000 – live near shore and spend lots of time on the surface, which made them easy for whalers to kill and, later, to become entangled in fishing nets and lobster and snow-crab trap lines or struck by passing ships. Of the 17 killed last year, officials were able to do necropsies on seven, and found two had been entangled in gear and three died from blunt trauma consistent with a ship strike, according to a detailed Dec. 29 report issued by Fisheries Canada. All seven had telltale signs of having been entangled in gear at some point in their lives.

Another five live whales were documented as having been entangled in snow-crab fishing gear in Atlantic Canada last year, the report said, and two of them were freed by whale rescue teams.

Moira Brown, a Campobello Island, New Brunswick-based senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, said the really worrying thing was that there are now only 105 adult females left. “That’s very few females to allow this population to grow, so we’re down to saving one whale at a time again,” Brown said.

When right whale carcasses began washing ashore, Canadian authorities imposed an emergency 10-knot (11 mph) speed limit for all vessels over 65.6 feet in length transiting a large part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the body of water bounded by southeastern Quebec, northeastern New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Transport Canada reports that most of the 4,459 ships that transited the area before the ban was lifted Jan. 11 complied with the rule, but 92 were flagged for review, and so far 14 have been issued $6,000 fines.

Marine biologists say 17 North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Cape Cod and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer and fall. 2005 photo by Moira Brown/Courtesy of New England Aquarium

The fined vessels include a Canadian Coast Guard cutter, nine cargo vessels and three cruise ships on cruises that had included stops in Portland or Bar Harbor. Those were the 210-passenger Pearl Mist (for traveling 10.7 knots), the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator (10.5 knots) and the 3,080-passenger Crown Princess (11.5 knots). Princess Cruises spokeswoman Brea Burkholz said via email that the Crown Princess’ crew was forced to exceed the 10-knot limit to maintain control of the vessel as it encountered strong currents and high crosswinds while crossing the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. She said the bridge crew assigned extra lookouts and informed the Canadian Coast Guard ahead of time that they might have to increase speed to maintain steerage.

“The safety of our guests and crew is always our number one priority,” Burkholz said, but added that “we take our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment very seriously.”

MANY FACTORS AFFECT SHIP SPEEDS

Inquiries to Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which owns the Seven Seas Navigator, and Pearl Seas Cruises, which owns the Pearl Mist, were not responded to. But Greg Wirtz, Vancouver-based president of the Northwest and Canada division of the Cruise Lines International Association, said navigating large ships at low speeds can sometimes be a challenge.

“There are times when factors like tides, weather and current can together be moving those ships 10 knots by themselves, and the ship needs to be traveling faster in relation to the water it is in in order to maintain navigational safety,” Wirtz said. “So when those three ships were fined for exceeding the limit – the Government of Canada chose to show no mercy with the rules regardless of the weather and tide conditions prevalent at the time.” The ships typically travel 15 to 20 knots when in transit.

The cruise lines, he said, were especially sensitive to environmental issues. “We’re consumer brands that rely on our responsible environmental behavior, which is a little different than the rest of the marine industry,” he said. “It’s really important to cruise lines that they respect the environment and are seen by consumers as doing so.”

The speed restrictions also forced some ships to drop port calls in order to maintain their schedules. Nearly two dozen port calls were canceled this past fall, including a dozen in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and a third of the season’s port calls for the port in Gaspe, Quebec. Wirtz said if the whales return to the area and speed restrictions are imposed, a repeat is likely for many lines this year because cruise lines generally set their schedules two years in advance.

Maine port calls are not affected by the situation. The ships typically spent more time at sea in transit, as last-minute changes to port calls are not generally feasible, Wirtz said.

A spokesman for Transport Canada, the federal department responsible for marine safety, said the department appreciated that most marine operators had fully complied with the speed restrictions and that many cases had been dismissed. “Most of these cases involved a speed slightly higher than 10 knots for a very short duration,” said Pierre Manoni.

Brown, the whale researcher, said ship operators have been cooperative in the effort to save the endangered whales. “The shipping industry has always been engaged and at the table when it comes to reducing ship strikes,” she said.

She also said she was hopeful for the species, whose population was as low as 300 in 1990 and yet increased to nearly 500 seven years ago, demonstrating turnarounds are possible.

“Nobody’s giving up on the whales yet,” she said.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

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