Time to pass SAVE Right Whales Act, celebrate state marine mammal during Whale Week
By Guest Columnist NANCY K. DAVES, retired international specialist, NOAA Fisheries
As Winter arrives, ‘tis the season for many holidays. But the ocean off Georgia’s coast has a different reason to celebrate. November marks the beginning of North Atlantic right whale calving season in our southern waters.
Many of the whales come within proximity of our barrier islands and coastlines, seeking warmer safe water to have their babies. The only known calving corridor on the planet for these whales stretches from North Florida through the entire Georgia coast. These whales are lovingly called the urban whale because they migrate in near shore waters, making it possible for people to catch a glimpse of one from a beach. However, the future of these whales is in peril and it is time for the federal government to help protect these whales.
Two major threats are influencing the future of this species.
Collisions with vessels can cause injury and even be deadly. Since North Atlantic right whales are slow, usually near the surface, and often in areas with vessel traffic, this makes them at risk. The whales are also dark in color and do not have a dorsal fin, making them blend into water. The speed of ships is one factor for collisions, but even at normal operating speeds many vessels cannot maneuver to avoid the whales, and the whales are too slow to move out of the way.
The other threat is entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish such as halibut, flounder and cod, which leads to North Atlantic right whale deaths. An Oct. 27 statement from Oceana observes: “Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 North Atlantic right whales each year, and about 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once”.
Recent news has made the story of North Atlantic right whale even more concerning. An October 2020 estimate from NOAA Fisheries finds the North Atlantic right whale population plummeting and estimates only about 360 North Atlantic right whales remain. Between 2017 and 2020, an Unusual Mortality Event has confirmed 31 deaths of North Atlantic right whales. In June, a dead calf was identified by experts with the New England Aquarium and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as the male calf of a female right whale known as #3560, first seen together off the coast of Georgia in mid-December 2019. There were several propeller wounds across the head and chest, with what appeared to be a skeg or rudder injury on the back that may have occurred at the same time. In all mortalities documented by NOAA Fisheries, the leading category for the cause of death was “human interaction,” specifically from entanglements or vessel strikes.
These whales have survived industrial whaling for more than 900 years and now they are facing a whole new set of challenges. That’s why, in 1973, North Atlantic right whales gained more federal protection from the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Then in the early 1980s Georgia made international news for the whales when the calving corridor was discovered in Georgia’s waters.
The significance of this discovery evoked a wave of excitement across our ocean state. In 1985, following the discovery of this calving ground and critical habitat, just 15 miles off the coast of Georgia and northern Florida, Georgia Conservancy, along with help from many in the community, led the successful campaign to the Georgia General Assembly to designate the North Atlantic right whale official Georgia’s state marine mammal. Since then, we have come a long way in what we know about North Atlantic right whales, and we have a strong community of people who want to ensure the future of these giant whales.
In September of 2019, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson cosponsored the SAVE the Right Whales Act of 2019 and Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Savannah) cosponsored a companion measure in the House. This is an important piece of legislation that will provide authorization and funding to address the desperately needed innovations that will help address the two biggest threats to these whales – ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
While the federal government plays a key role in the future of these whales, it’s important to bring together all stakeholders including fishing and shipping industries, and academic and conservation groups to work on solutions.
It’s now time for all Georgia representatives and senators to join effort and help pass the SAVE the Right Whales Act. This is a huge step for Georgia’s ocean giant. We are bestowed with a great honor of protecting our state marine mammal.
In addition, Georgians have the opportunity to learn more about these amazing creatures by attending Savannah’s Whale Week 3.0 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 6. Whale Week aims to bring together the Savannah community and beyond to build awareness and promote conservation of North Atlantic right whales. Through a week of events, we draw from local and national experts to learn about this curious large marine mammal, the environmental factors affecting their future, and how we can play a role in ocean stewardship.
Events include a virtual whale watch, and talks on the history, the role of women and people of color and indigenous people and North Atlantic Right Whales in Georgia. Learn more about Whale Week 3.0 and make reservations here.
Note to readers: During 23 years with the federal government, Nancy K. Daves worked on various protected resources issues including wildlife trade, incidental take reduction of marine mammals and capacity building in developing countries. In 2016, she retired to Atlanta where she works on local conservation issues.