Right Whales and Climate Change: Trying to Hit a Moving Target

Entanglement, low birth rates, ship strikes, plastic pollution and climate change are among the catastrophic blows being dealt to Right Whale conservation efforts.

It’s been nothing but hard times for the North Atlantic Right Whale ever since being marked the ‘right’ whale to hunt about 500 years ago due to its sluggish habits and positively buoyant physique (ie. they float and are relatively easy to kill). They were nearly wiped out by the late 1700s, and only ~400 of them are estimated to exist today, few enough to label them among the most endangered of the Great Whales (second only to the North Pacific Right Whale). Even the elimination of commercial whaling within their range seems to have done little to boost their population, which has actually declined from nearly 500 just in 2010.
 

So while the alarm bells for their survival have been ringing for generations, things became even more dire when 6 were found dead, likely due to ship strikes or other human activities (no Right Whales have died in recent years from natural causes). That’s nearly 2% of the entire population, and perhaps even more concerning was that some of those that died were known reproductive adults. Losing those individuals was especially significant because only a portion of the population is expected to be currently reproducing (only 100 are estimated to be reproductive females). In addition, birth rates have declined over recent decades (some years none at all), and these deaths are just the latest in a recent pattern that the US government has officially titled The 2017–2019 North Atlantic Right Whale UME (Unusual Mortality Event). So it’s no surprise then to see such concern over losing even just a few of the most productive individuals left in existence. And to add insult to injury, three more individuals have since been reported to be entangled in fishing gear, which is usually the most common cause of Right Whale deaths (efforts are currently underway to rescue these three). No question about it, the last month has been a catastrophic blow to Right Whale conservation efforts.

So why did we lose 6 whales in one month, and many more over the past few years? North Atlantic Right Whales seem to be appearing in greater numbers in regions where far fewer have historically ventured. All 6 of the recent deaths occurred in Canada, particularly the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which was previously thought to be outside of the species’ usual range. Because few whales are typically seen there, protections to minimize kills (like fishing restrictions to avoid gear entanglement and speed limits to avoid ship strikes) have not been in place.

The Canadian government began to take action starting last week to expand such regulations to new areas and increase surveillance efforts to see where else Right Whales may be venturing (though some argue that these efforts are still not enough). But these new protections that differ from typical conservation and regulatory activities can be major disruptions to businesses and marine industries. Fishermen and shipping companies operating in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (a major shipping thoroughfare) will now have to take extra time and costs to accommodate the new protections. Lobstermen in Cape Cod Bay, which has also seen an unexpected increase in Right Whales in recent years for the same reasons, have had to stop fishing for months at a time. Furthermore, surveillance efforts, which mainly consist of visual surveys via airplanes, are costly as well. This is by no means to say that continuing to protect Right Whales is not worth it, but rather to demonstrate that events like the Unexpected Mortality Event (UME) can have wide reaching effects and come at a cost to everyone. And we can only expect to see these types of environmental costs and challenges become more common in the face of climate change.

And yes, the shift in the distribution of Right Whales that has led to the deaths behind the UME is believed to be in response to climate change. A recent study by researchers at the Bigelow Lab in Maine (Record et al. 2019) demonstrated how changes in Right Whale locations are likely in response to changes in the lifecycle and distribution of their favorite food, a type of shrimp-like plankton called copepods (Calanus finmarchicus). And these changes for copepods are in response to warming waters caused by sudden shifts in ocean circulation patterns (AMOC, specifically) that experts believe may be a result of climate change and have caused the ocean off the Northeast United States to be among the fastest warming places in the world. In short, due to climate change, the whales’ food is no longer where it used to be, and so the whales have had to search new places to find it. And as something that is occurring in one of the fastest warming places on the planet, this event is also a preview of the type of environmental impacts we may see on a much greater scale from climate change over the course of the century.

But the question remains, will the recently observed changes in Right Whale distributions be a new established norm? Will things eventually go back to “normal”? Or will the distribution of copepods and Right Whales continue to change over the years to come? These questions are all relevant as policy makers will have to continue to impose conservation efforts and regulations to protect the whales wherever they may turn up. The implications? Whereas Right Whale locations were once fairly predictable, sudden uncertainty in where they may venture now and in the future as a result of climate driven impacts means that efforts to protect them are now chasing a moving target. It’s an ironic twist in fate for a creature that was targeted and nearly hunted to extinction for its sedentary behavior.

The challenges and consequences of trying to protect a moving target are already well demonstrated by the many Right Whale deaths over the 2017–2019 UME. Governments have had to make fast and disruptive regulatory changes in order to accommodate the sudden shifts in the Right Whale’s apparent range while also increasing spending on monitoring. And this all comes after a substantial portion of the population has already been killed. As such, the Right Whale UME exposes two important ways in which we need to prepare for such climate change related events that will become more frequent and widespread in the future.

The first is to make sure that marine policy frameworks can be flexible and respond quickly to sudden unexpected environmental changes. Policy changes, especially on an international scale, can be quite slow to react and require years of talks and negotiations before decisions are made and action is taken. This is especially concerning for the ocean considering that half of it lies in international waters, and many marine animals including whales routinely travel long distances crossing domestic and international boundaries. On a domestic level, while the Canadian government is already responding to last month’s Right Whale deaths, it is likely that many other governments today wouldn’t have the capacity to identify and respond to a similar problem as rapidly. So the world may need to undergo a fundamental shift in the way we make policy decisions about climate change events, domestic and international.

The second, Record et al. 2019 writes, “adapting to rapid change will require approaches that anticipate change.” Indeed, better than being able to respond quickly to such sudden climate change events would be to better predict them, to be more proactive rather than reactive. Perhaps these whale deaths could have been avoided if we knew ahead of time that they were going to venture to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in greater numbers. Though even with recent findings on the relationship between temperature, copepods, and Right Whales, which is a major step forward for Right Whale conservation efforts, putting that knowledge into effective action is easier said than done for answering questions like ‘Where should we place regulations to protect Right Whales?’. Because while it is relatively easy to observe climate change (as we have been) and to have a general idea of the types of impacts we will experience, understanding how climate change impacts will manifest on a specific and local enough scale for anticipating things like the Right Whale UME remains a tremendous challenge. Case in point, a 2017 study did not even list Right Whales as one of 873 species of mammals believed to be negatively affected by climate change.
 

Projecting climate change impacts is so difficult partly because there are so many different factors that can act as levers to steer the state of the natural world, especially in places as complex as marine ecosystems. In addition to temperature changes, other variables that can impact copepods (and therefore whales) include things like ocean acidification, wind patterns, nutrient delivery, the timing of phytoplankton blooms and the lifecycles of plankton predators like larval fish, among many other variables that are all interconnected and need to be taken into account. Any one of these have the potential to be influenced by climate change, as well as other human driven impacts, and any one has the potential to throw entire ecosystems out of balance.

But while challenging, being able to better anticipate environmental events like what we are observing with Right Whales is not impossible provided we ramp up scientific efforts. And if we can advance the science to better anticipate climate change impacts, we are essentially buying ourselves time to better prepare for its effects. The human and financial resources required to do so, while expensive at times, would be well worth the investment as an alternative to the costs of reacting to climate change impacts once the damage has already started. Again, the Right Whale UME is but a glimpse of what we can expect in the future, and is a lesson in the costs of uncertainty and difficulties of addressing moving targets in environmental issues, which continued scientific advances can help us avoid.

John Bohorquez

Working towards a Ph.D. at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, with a focus on economics of marine ecosystems and conservation finance. Read more at medium.com/@johnjoaquinbohorquez.

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