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Protecting whale superhighways

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A photograph taken on May 4, 2021 shows a young grey whale, called Wally, swimming in the Mediterranean sea, off the coast of Sete, southern France. (RENAUD DUPUY DE LA GRANDRIVE/AFP via Getty Images)
A photograph taken on May 4, 2021 shows a young grey whale, called Wally, swimming in the Mediterranean sea, off the coast of Sete, southern France. (RENAUD DUPUY DE LA GRANDRIVE/AFP via Getty Images)

The world's great whales.

Scientists have finally mapped what they call 'whale superhighways.'

Oceanic migratory routes that are essential to whale survival, and corridors of major human disruption.

"There are very few things that don't have a negative impact on," Ari Friedlaender, a professor of ocean sciences, says. "When we think about conserving whales, we don't think about changing the whale's behavior. What we need to do is modify [what] people do."

Today, On Point: Protecting whale superhighways.

Guest

Ari Friedlaender, professor of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Co-author of the Protecting Blue Corridors report.

Also Featured

Kerri Seger, bioaccoustican at Applied Ocean Sciences. (@kiwi_zk)

Michael J. Moore, veterinary scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Author of We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility.

Transcript: How Human Disruption Impacts Whales

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Michael J. Moore is a veterinarian and scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And he's spent the last 40 years researching whales, particularly the North Atlantic right whale.

Now, this time of year, the whales are coming back to Cape Cod Bay. And just a few days ago, Michael Moore was out on a boat using a drone to document returning whales. And that's when a North Atlantic right whale Moore hadn't previously known came right up to the boat.

MICHAEL J. MOORE: We were able to follow the whale with the drone, just watching it underwater, swimming around and underneath the boat. So we got some really nice photographs. And some of them, some of the boat in the same picture and some not. ... It's a small whale, maybe 30 feet long. A year, or maybe two years old. And I'm taking a closer look now at its callosities and all the whale lice on it. And its head sticking out of the water at a fairly sharp angle.

And you can see the baleen hanging down from the roof of the mast. And you know, the swells have dropped down a couple of hours before sunset, and the other whales leveling out a little bit. It just blew. I could see a little bit more of its back, a little bit further away from the boat now. And now it's turning right again, taking a sharp turn so its now parallel with the boat, and it'll come back in towards us again in a minute, probably if it does what it's been doing for the last 20 minutes or so.

CHAKRABARTI: There are less than 340 North Atlantic right whales known to be alive today. Humans are the reason for their dwindling numbers. In the past, of course, with whaling. And in the present, entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. Those are the prime culprits. Back at his office at Woods Hole, Moore explains that more than 80% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. A quarter of them get entangled every year.

MOORE: What they are is usually some kind of rope that the animal has swung into inadvertently. And wrapped around various body parts. And so the rope can get wedged in the baleen, which is the only material that hangs down from the roof of the mouth to be used as a filter for feeding. And often it can get wrapped around the upper jaw a number of times.

CHAKRABARTI: Moore remembers one whale in particular ... who was entangled. After sedating her, Moore and other scientists were able to remove some of the rope, but it wasn't enough. She eventually died.

MOORE: The rope had cut down into her right lip. To the point where it healed over. And so if you cut into the lip ... when she was dead during the autopsy, you could see the rope embedded in her lip. And the rope then was going from the lip to being towed behind the whale. You know, think about it. All this weight pulling on your lip. Day after day after day.

CHAKRABARTI: Over the past couple of years, scientists, technologists and fishermen have developed so-called rope-less gear. It's tech that eliminates the need for vertical lines that run between, say, lobster traps on the sea and their buoys on the surface. So whales getting entangled in coastal fishing gear could be a thing of the past, but Moore isn't sure it will be.

MOORE: It's a conversation that has in some ways shifted from science to economics, culture, politics and what we really care about. Do you want your seafood affordable and obviously the survival of the industries and the human costs of what this means to the families involved in that industry, versus the long-term survival of the biodiversity of our oceans and what these animals mean in terms of ocean health? What do we care about? This is ultimately a hard question to answer.

CHAKRABARTI: Back out on the waters off Cape Cod, Moore watches his new acquaintance, that young North Atlantic right whale, as it moves around the boat. And he gets pensive during a brief moment of simplicity and peace.

MOORE: It's hard to know whether it's speeding or it's curious or a bit of both. But just blew again, its mouth's open, tilting up its head. And you can see the rack of baleen on the left side and the right side, as it just comes through the water.

Some folks have described this as a seventh wonder of the world, and it's quite extraordinary, really, that we have these animals within five miles of fairly major housing and people and railroad tracks and highways. Here, we've got something that's been here for hundreds of thousands of years, just quietly doing its thing.

And it would be so nice if they could continue to do so, so that humans can live, the whales can live. It's now coming right back close to the boat again. The most extraordinary situation here.

CHAKRABBARTI: That was Michael Moore. He's a veterinarian and whale scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. We really want to note that Michael Moore is a researcher. And therefore able to get close to whales for purposes of research because he and his fellow scientists hold permits through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Without a permit, North Atlantic right whales must be given 500 yards of distance. So you would be breaking federal law if you tried to approach these whales. Don't do it, don't do it. Let that work be done by the scientists and researchers trying to help the whales.


During the segment with Kerri Seger, we heard a lot of different underwater sounds.

Sound of hydrophone placement was supported by the Columbian SCUBA company  Kákiri Estación de BuceoThe underwater sounds of humpback whales and boats was collected in collaboration with the PHySIColombia project.


This program aired on March 25, 2022.

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