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N.S. researcher 'cautiously optimistic' about state of endangered North Atlantic right whales

There are only an estimated 336 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet, but at least one Nova Scotia researcher says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the endangered animals’ current situation.

Earlier this year, the Canadian government announced measures – including the closure of some fishing areas and speed restrictions for vessels – to protect the whales from ship strikes and entanglements as they migrate into Canadian waters.

Tim Frasier is a professor in the department of biology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax whose research work focuses on right whale genetics. Part of that work includes building a family tree for the species to help better understand both their biology and their reproductive biology.

“We’re also trying to understand what role, if any, genetic diversity or in-breeding might be having on the species recovery,” he says. “They’re very endangered and they’re not recovering the way we would expect them to, and the way that many other whales species are.”

During the 2022 calving season, 15 right whale calves were spotted in U.S. waters. Frasier says it’s been a “fairly good year” for the species.

“It’s about average, it’s not great, but it’s better than none. I think people are kind of subtly happy about that calf number. So far, there haven’t been too many new entanglements or known mortalities, so I think the year is off to a good start. It’s often the summers, though, that we start to see more entanglements.”

Vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are just some of the factors impeding the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale. Frasier says their low reproductive rate is also to blame.

“Their reproductive rate is much lower than what we know they are capable of,” he says. “A lot are dying, and not a lot are being born. So those two together are what’s causing the problem.”

Efforts to combat right whale deaths also include promising work with different fishing communities to modify their gear. A technique using “on-demand fishing gear” removes the line going from the gear to the surface of the water.

“When the fishermen want to retrieve their gear, they have a remote control that releases the buoy so that it only comes to the surface when they need to haul their gear. Therefore, that gear is not in water while they’re fishing,” says Frasier. “That really reduces the risk to entanglement, not just of right whales, but any whale species and sharks and sea turtles.”

He adds that whales have been through “a lot” over the years.

“They lived through whaling, they lived though different changes to the oceanic environment, so I think the ones that are left are the tough individuals. They’ve lived through hard things in the past and I think that if we give them a chance that they can recover. I’m cautiously optimistic, but not everyone feels that way yet.”

A North Atlantic right whale was first spotted in Canadian waters this season on May 4, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The sighting triggered a 15-day fishing closure in the area. Top Stories

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