Next to the bed of the right whale

These large mammals of the North Atlantic are threatened with extinction

The right whale population has declined since 2010. Only 336 individuals remain. © NOAA News Archive

The right whale population has declined since 2010. Only 336 individuals remain. © NOAA News Archive

Published on 02.05.2022

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to support ” After hours at sea and some false hopes, here it is: Three critically endangered North Atlantic right whales appear in front of the science ship in a bay near Boston in the northeastern United States. captain Sherwater Cut the engine and three marine biologists are busy taking notes and photos to identify and track the whales and their whales. Essential work to protect this species, of which only 336 individuals remain, according to experts.

The right whale, or North Atlantic right whale, decimated by the now-banned whalers, is still under threat from collisions with boats and fishing nets. This species of large marine mammal – twenty meters in length and 70 tons in weight – is more vulnerable to extinction than tigers or black rhinos.

population decline

“Unfortunately, its population has declined since 2010,” explains Kristi Hodak, president of the Coastal Research Center in Provincetown, the Massachusetts fishing port where the researchers’ boat left.

Using a small plane and camera-equipped drones launched from a second boat, these scientists are trying to continue cloning it Eubalaena glacialisLatin name. Because new rules about the speed of ships in reserves or fishing nets did not reassure them. Climate change, by heating the waters of the North Atlantic, is depleting the stocks of small crustaceans, Calanos finmarchicusa component of plankton and essential to the diet of right whales.

The species numbered as many as 20,000 individuals before widespread hunting arrived, according to David Leist, author of a book on the topic. Then it was destroyed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rising births in the early 2000s peaked at 483 animals in 2010, but the number, which has since fallen, fell in 2017, due to a buildup of deaths. “Fourteen right whales died in a very short time, as they moved to the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” says Charles Mayo, founder of the Coastal Research Center, where they rarely go and where they were hit hard by crabs.

Climate change appears to be the cause of this shift in their feeding area, due to a lack of sufficient prey. And with right whales already so rare, even a handful of deaths could be enough to cause a serious decline in the species.

These whales, the third largest in the marine kingdom, live as long as humans, sometimes up to a century old. Stocky and black in color, they have the peculiarity of not having a dorsal fin and adornment, on the head, with spikes covered with small crustaceans called “whale lice”, and they live in phenotypical symbiosis with their hosts.

new technologies

The researchers, after being warned by colleagues as they flew over the area, found new whales, including a calf playing to imitate its mother, and then a group of cetaceans close together on the surface for socializing. During this type of gathering, Kristi Hodak explains, “whales roll on themselves to touch others. The main goal is to breed but it is also about interacting with other right whales.”

The cruise will allow observation of ten whales, including two mothers with their calves, and group socialization. The survival of the species is far from certain, but the researchers allow themselves to be optimistic. New technologies aim to reduce entanglement in fishing nets, whether by making the ropes more fragile or by designing traps that can be brought to the surface by remote control without a line.

Better acoustic detection can also enable whales to respond quickly to their presence by creating limited speed zones for boats. But Kristi Hoodk stresses that it is necessary to raise awareness and gain public support to protect these “magnificent creatures”.

AFP/ATS

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