Finding sanctuary for right whales: A Q&A with Dr. David Wiley

By Elizabeth Weinberg

February 2018

right whale surfacing
A right whale surfaces in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Peter Flood

For years, North Atlantic right whales were hunted for their oil and baleen, which devastated the population. For decades now, these whales have been protected under the Endangered Species Act. Despite protections, this critically-endangered whale is in crisis, with only about 450 remaining. 2017 was a particularly devastating year for the North Atlantic right whale, which suffered a four percent population loss.

There is some good news, though: NOAA scientists, resource managers, and partners are working to bring this conservation challenge into focus and to galvanize efforts to save the North Atlantic right whale. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator Dr. David Wiley is one such scientist. A baleen whale specialist, Dr. Wiley has been investigating the marine environment for nearly 30 years. Since 2001, he’s been working at Stellwagen Bank to help protect the sanctuary’s living marine resources like right whales while supporting compatible human uses.

dr. david wiley
Dr. David Wiley

How do North Atlantic right whales use Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary?

Dr. Wiley: Stellwagen Bank is located off the coast of Massachusetts, and is an incredibly rich feeding ground for whales like right whales. We see them feeding on dense concentrations of small crustaceans and other types of zooplankton. In the sanctuary, they also engage in surface active groups, where numerous whales get together to roll around, rub against each other, and socialize.

right whale feeding near dolphins
A North Atlantic right whale feeds near Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Photo: Allison Henry/NOAA, under MMPA Permit #17335

What is the sanctuary trying to learn about right whales’ role in the sanctuary?

Right whales are the most critically endangered species that use the sanctuary and one of the rarest large mammals on the planet. There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and of those, only 100 are reproductive females.

The main problem these whales face is injury or death caused by entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with large ships, In the past, we have tagged right whales to see how they use the water column relative to fishing gear and ships. Our tagging collaboration with Dr. Susan Parks of Syracuse University has shown that right whales tend to feed just below the water’s surface, which makes it harder for ships to see them. We map how the whales use the sanctuary, so we can try to separate them from danger.

Noise from shipping is also making it harder and harder for right whales to communicate with each other, so we have been using passive acoustics to map the soundscape of the sanctuary. Dr. Leila Hatch, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s marine ecologist, leads a groundbreaking passive acoustic investigation on the impact of noise on right whales in the sanctuary. She and her team have calculated that noise from shipping has diminished right whale communication space in the sanctuary by almost 70 percent.

We try to learn as much as we can about the human activities that interact with right whales. Since we cannot change right whale behavior, our only hope is to modify the human activities that harm them.

These are large projects and difficult tasks, so we collaborate with a number of organizations to help North Atlantic right whales in the sanctuary. Our main collaborators include NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Coast Guard, Syracuse University, the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

entangled right whale
An entangled right whale trails fishing gear. Photo: NOAA

What is one important thing you’ve learned about North Atlantic right whales from your research?

One constant thread in our research findings is that right whale behavior makes them very hard to see. Protecting them requires separating whales and ships, or slowing ships down to speeds that are less lethal – 10 knots or less.

right whale mother and calf
A right whale swims with her calf. Photo: NOAA

How are Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and your partners addressing the North Atlantic right whale crisis?

We have a bunch of projects focused on right whales. We led the creation of the Whale Alert mobile app, which is a free app that allows mariners and the general public to see all right whale management requirements displayed on nautical charts. The app is geosmart, so ship captains can see where they are relative to conservation areas like reduced speed zones. People can also use Whale Alert to report right whale and other whale sightings, and to notify the proper authorities if they see a right whale or any other marine life in distress. While we first created Whale Alert specifically for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and right whales, it’s now being used all around the world for many species of whales. West Coast national marine sanctuaries use it for blue whales, and it’s used for humpback whales in the Arabian Sea.

We also led the development of the world’s first near-time acoustic detection system for right whales. Our partners at the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution created a system of 10 buoys that are spaced throughout the shipping lanes in the sanctuary. Each buoy is equipped with an underwater microphone called a hydrophone, which detects a certain right whale call. When the sound is confirmed to be a right whale, the buoy’s icon turns yellow in Whale Alert, warning mariners and other boaters that there is a right whale in the shipping lanes. The buoys also help us track how frequently right whales are in the sanctuary – we’re finding they’re here for the majority of days of most months of the year.

We’ve found it crucial to collaborate with commercial industries to encourage right whale protection. We’ve worked with the Massachusetts Port Authority, the Coast Guard, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to create the Right Whale Corporate Responsibility Project, which tracks ship movements and creates a report card for how closely each ship matches NOAA’s speed requirements. With the report card, we provide deserving companies with positive attention for their efforts – last year IFAW gave special awards to COSCO and the Mediterranean Shipping Company in recognition of their exemplary grades and efforts. We’ve also worked with the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association to reduce entanglement risk, and I serve on NOAA’s Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a multi-stakeholder team that works to reduce the entanglement of large whales in commercial fishing gear.

scarred right whale
Eros is a North Atlantic right whale that was born in 2007. He was found entangled off of Florida in 2008 and partially disentangled, later shedding the remaining gear. The scar visible on his head is a healed propellor laceration caused in 2012. Photo: Christin Khan/NOAA, under MMPA permit #775-1875

How has shifting the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme helped right whales?

In the early 2000s, we led research and policy actions that resulted in the realignment of the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme – that is, the route ships take in and out of the Port of Boston. Using long-term sightings data provided by the Center for Coastal Studies and the Whale Center of New England, we calculated that shifting the traffic lanes though the sanctuary would reduce the instances in which whales and ships were in the same place. We worked with NOAA Fisheries, the Coast Guard, and the Boston Port Operators Group to shift the Traffic Separation Scheme in 2007. Since then, we have documented no large whale deaths associated with this portion of the Traffic Separation Scheme. The shift set a precedent for moving shipping lanes in other parts of the country to protect whales.

right whale surfacing in front of a research vessel
A tagged right whale swims past Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s R/V Tioga. Photo: David Wiley/NOAA, under MMPA Permit #1058-1733

How can technology help right whales going forward?

Right now the technological breakthrough we need most is a reliable way to fish trap-pots without using vertical lines. Vertical lines help fishermen haul gear to surface and locate their gear, but they pose a serious threat of entanglement. We need a lineless fishing method and we need it fast.

two whales feeding
Two right whales echelon feeding. When echelon feeding, two whales arrange themselves in a "v," with one whale slightly behind the other. Photo: Allison Henry/NOAA, under MMPA Permit #17355

Why do you care about right whales?

I care about all living things. I also dislike anything that harms living things, particularly if that harm occurs at a population level. For right whales, harm extends from the pain and suffering of individual animals that are struck or entangled all the way to the potential extinction of the entire species.

In terms of large whales, North Atlantic right whales are the conservation challenge of our time. Saving them will require working collaboratively with diverse partners and stakeholders. At Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, we have a history of working productively with stakeholders, and we hope to continue and improve upon those efforts.

Please note that it is illegal to intentionally approach within 500 yards of a North Atlantic right whale. If you find your vessel within this buffer zone, depart immediately at a safe, slow speed. As a whale watcher, you can support companies that commit to using best practices and protecting the ocean through programs like Whale SENSE. If you see an injured or entangled whale, please call the 24-hour NOAA hotline at 1-888-256-9840.

Elizabeth Weinberg is the social media coordinator and editor/writer for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.