We do hear a lot about the negatives in conservation. What’s going wrong, which species are not recovering and how we are contributing to that! This is all very important, we need to share and publicise the areas that require our attention and need to be focused on.
However, in the news recently has been a brilliant success sorry and sometimes we need positives and successes to keep us going, to know that what we are doing works and that we are making a difference.
So this latest and greatest success story is that the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). This whale is the most endangered of all the large or “great” whales (Blue, Fin, Sei, Bryde’s, Bowhead, Humpback, Gray, Minke, Sperm and Right Whales). Having been greatly impacted by whaling both historic and modern its numbers dwindled with the numbers of individuals in the population being as low as 300 when monitoring began over three decades ago.
Following the moratorium (1986) on whaling this species has been at risk from two main threats affecting its recovery. These are (1) Ship Strikes and (2) Entanglement in Fishing Gear. The Bay of Fundy, Canada and Cape Cod Bay, USA which are critical habitat areas for North Atlantic right whales are also where there exists a large risk from these two threats for this species.
The good news however is that now more than 500 individuals have been recorded in the latest census. This is absolutely amazing and a massive bounce back from being close to the brink of extinction.
How has this happened?
Well it is thanks in large part to big changes made to shipping traffic.
In the Bay of Fundy in 2003 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) official rerouted the busy shipping lane in the bay through which, large vessels such as tankers, cruise ships and bulk carriers travel. It was shifted to the east so that it no long traversed through a high density area for right whales. Now less than 2% of North Atlantic right whales sightings are reported in the lane a drop down from 30% before this move.
Further south, off the coast of Massachusetts in the United States the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) implemented seasonal speed restrictions in 2008 of 10 knots or lower (mandatory for vessels of 65 feet or over) in high density feeding ground regions including another large shipping lane for vessel travelling into the Boston Harbour.
Thanks to these regulations ships strikes have (currently) been eliminated in these critical areas under seasonal restrictions. Outside of these zones only two whales have been stuck in the United States. This number is brilliant. Obviously, all anthropogenic caused marine mammal mortalities are terrible but prior to regulations 24 of 67 reported dead whales, between 1970-2007, were from ship strikes and we just don’t know how many went unreported, unrecovered or unnoticed.
Additionally, there has been a lot of effort in regard to preventing entanglement and disentangling individuals that have been affected.
The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP) of NOAA is working to reduce the entanglement risks of large whales (North Atlantic right whale, humpback and fin whales) in commercial gillnet and trap/pot fisheries. Measures they have implemented to minimise entanglement risks include bans or modifications on fishing gear and conservation no go zones.
However, these have not been as effective as the shipping speed and zone restrictions. This year an Environmental Impact Statement was released by NOAA to look the potential impacts (biological, economical and social) of proposed improvements and modifications to the ALWTRP alongside details on the entanglement problem and the species impacted.
The Environmental Impact Statement has lead to new recommendations on vertical or buoy lines which cause the majority of entanglements (including reducing number where appropriate, increasing the weakness of the lines (especially in calving areas) and requiring that all gear is brought back to shore after each trip in some zones). These regulations will be rolled out over the next 12 months. Hopefully, these measure when implemented will be as effective in reducing the impact on North Atlantic right whale mortality as the work to reduce ship strikes has been (more can be read here).
This is only the beginning and there is a still a long way to go but, we do have the twinkle of a great success story on our hands. From a species whose numbers dwindled into the 300’s to have grown up to 500 individuals and for ship strikes in two key management areas to have been reduced to zero is outstanding. Not to mention the successful collaboration between conservationist, government organisations, charities, the shipping industry, fishermen and recreational boaters which is a triumph all of its own
It may just be the start but it is these little successes that keep us going and keep us positive.