What’s Wrong with the Right Whales?

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by Steve Desroches

It’s a steely-gray, cold day.  And while it is not unusual for spring to be late, (or rather the warm weather and blue skies associated with the season), this year seems particularly dismal compounded by a traumatic winter and Trump fatigue.  By this time in April the first hints of summer, both those of the natural world and the economic shift for the Cape should be apparent, especially during school vacation week when the whale watch boats start running. It’s entirely too cold, windy, and rainy in Provincetown for that.

Whales have long been an integral part of Provincetown’s culture and economy. At the height of the whaling era in the mid 1800s Provincetown was behind only New Bedford and Nantucket as the wealthiest whaling port in America. Over 100 years later Provincetown became the first spot on the East Coast to begin commercial whale watches when, in April of 1975 Al Avellar took a group of school children to see these gentle giants of the sea, thus creating an important sector of Provincetown’s economy that continues to grow. A report released a few weeks ago by the town’s Office of Tourism showed that while retail spending is in decline, visitors are much more likely to open their wallets for experiences rather than souvenirs.

“Everything is pointing to negative growth for the population,” says Mayo. “The arrow is pointing to zero. And that is why it’s reasonable to talk about the validity of extinction of one of the rarest large mammals on Earth.”

CCS image NOAA permit 14603

All of that is of course good news. The more people learn about whales and their marine ecosystem the more likely they are to become advocates for their conservation and protection. Passengers on the whale watches fall in love when they see a humpback breach or a huge finback swim up alongside. But the crowds really came to town last year when news reports stated that about 60% of the entire globe’s population of the North Atlantic right whale was in Cape Cod Bay. That’s incredible news, but the sobering reality is that we may be among the last generations to see these endangered mammals.

“At the rate we’re going, if nothing changes, in 25 to 30 years they will be functionally extinct, say some scientists,” says Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo about the dire situation of the North Atlantic right whale. “These are extraordinary times.”

As the rain streams down the window of his office at the Center for Coastal Studies’ Holway Avenue headquarters, he speaks with a clear knowledge that the news he shares is indeed grim, so much so that it bears repetition from time to time. He also speaks like a scientist; when facts and knowledge are expressed, he quickly follows by citing what remains unknown, and it’s a lot when it comes to the right whales. There is no room for anecdotes, but only hypothesis. There are so many questions to be answered, and time is running out. Mayo, who cofounded the Center for Coastal Studies in 1976 with his late wife Dr. Barbara Shuler Mayo and Dr. Graham Giese, will provide insight into the plight of the North Atlantic right whale on a panel discussion at the Provincetown Public Library this Thursday accompanied by Regina Asmutis-Silva, executive director and senior biologist for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation: North America; Dennis Minsky, chair of Provincetown’s conservation commission and whale educator aboard the Dolphin Fleet whale watches; and Erin Burke, protected species specialist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. The panel is an ancillary event to the library’s annual Moby-Dick Marathon Reading, of which Mayo will read the beginning “Call me Ishmael” passage.

The Center is a leader in the study of marine mammals of the North Atlantic, but especially this ocean’s species of right whales. While the North Pacific right whale and the Southern right whale, seem to be maintaining, the North Atlantic right whale population has been in decline, as has the health of the animal in general. Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear account for some of the deaths, of which there have been 17 in the past year with a variety of causes, according to Mayo.  That’s a big number considering the population is estimated to be about 430, down from 500 in 2010.  But Mayo stresses one of his biggest concerns is for the fertility of the species. This year there were zero calves born, a startling fact he repeats frequently.

“Everything is pointing to negative growth for the population,” says Mayo. “The arrow is pointing to zero. And that is why it’s reasonable to talk about the validity of extinction of one of the rarest large mammals on Earth.”

“Why?” is the big question. The scientific community is exploring a variety of hypotheses from changes to the whales’ food sources, ocean pollution, a possibility of a natural cycle not yet understood, as well as the always present issue of climate change and its effects on the natural world. A possible explanation that sparks Mayo’s interest is ocean noise pollution created by humans. We as a species compete for resources and space with these mammals. And Mayo says that communication between these “sentient, big, complex mammals” could be interrupted or completely drowned out by the noise humans introduce into their marine ecosystem resulting in the low to nil birthrate.

CCS image NOAA permit 14603

The problem is compounded by the data that shows the general health of the species is in decline, with necropsies showing thinner layers of blubber and other physical issues with the right whales, even as the other species in our waters seem to be doing fine. Whatever is at play is affecting the right whales and to date not the others. Mayo is an 11th generation Provincetowner whose family arrived in the 1600s. His early ancestors were mackerel fishermen, but like many others kept a harpoon on board in case they encountered a right whale, as nabbing one equaled a year’s income.  His own family story represents the evolution of human thought that went from hunting to protecting these animals, and in particular this species, one that was in these waters long before humans came to the region. The look on his face says it all, especially when asked what we as individuals can do to help. The hard answer is, not much. The softer explanation is that the best we can do is to educate ourselves.

“Knowledge is power,” says Mayo.   “If we could know more then we could do more. The more you know the more you’ll recognize where you can make a difference.”

North Atlantic Right Whales: A Panel Discussion takes place on Thursday, April 26 at 6 p.m. at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St. The event is free. The discussion is a companion event for the Moby-Dick Marathon Reading, which takes places Friday, April 27, 2 to 8 p.m., Saturday, April 28, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. and Sunday, April 29, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. For more information visit call 508.487.7094 or provincetownlibrary.org.