Doing right by North Atlantic right whales

The Right Whale Corporate Responsibility Project

By Yaamini Venkataraman

Video above: Blue World Research Institute, taken under NMFS ESA/MMPA Permit #20556-01

June 2019

What makes the North Atlantic right whale “right?” Is it how they cruise through the water, mouth open, as tiny critters get trapped in their baleen? Or is it the unique pattern of rough skin, or callosities, that are used to identify individual whales? Perhaps it’s their impressive breaching displays as they hoist themselves out of the water and crash back down?

breaching right whale
A North Atlantic right whale breaches in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. These whales pass through the sanctuary each year to feed, and are vulnerable to being struck by vessels during this time. Photo: Peter Flood

For commercial whalers in the 1800s, these whales were dubbed the “right whale” because they floated, making them easy to hunt. This spelled trouble for the whales, whose population plummeted by the early 1900s. While right whales are no longer threatened by whaling, these animals have still not recovered from being hunted to the brink of extinction. NOAA Fisheries and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are working hard to help protect those that are left.

In 2008, NOAA, the agency in charge of protecting right whales in U.S. waters, began requiring large ships to slow down to 10 knots or less while passing through Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas. Some of these areas overlap Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a critical seasonal feeding area for right, humpback, fin, and minke whales. In these areas, large commercial ships converge to enter the Port of Boston. When ships slow down, any collisions they have with whales have a smaller chance of delivering a lethal strike.

Two years later, NOAA, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare launched the Right Whale Corporate Responsibility Project. The program uses positive reinforcement to encourage shipping companies to adhere to the speed regulations in Right Whale Seasonal Management Area, increasing compliance and conservation benefits. The U.S. Coast Guard provides information that tracks each individual ship and its speed while it passes through seasonal management areas. The Responsibility Project team uses these data to generate report cards on compliance with speed limits that are then sent to the shipping companies.

right whale at the ocean surface
North Atlantic right whales skim the surface of the water, mouths open, to feed, which makes them especially vulnerable to ship strikes. Photo: NOAA, under NOAA Fisheries Permit #633-1763-01

Today, only about 420 North Atlantic right whales remain. They pass through Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary fall through spring searching for food. But their journeys through the busy sanctuary can be harrowing. Commercial shipping and fishing vessels and whale watching tour boats crisscross the sanctuary. When ships and North Atlantic right whales collide, the incident often results in the death of the whale. While preventing ships from passing through the sanctuary might seem like the simplest solution to protect the whales, it also means the Boston port would suffer. How do we support the blue economy and protect a whale population?

For researchers and conservationists like Stellwagen Bay National Marine Sanctuary research coordinator Dr. David Wiley, the speed limit is just a first step. “We need to have systems in place that monitor compliance with these conservation rules to see if they truly meet their goal of helping the animals,” says Wiley. By working with the shipping industry, the sanctuary can help ensure the safety of right whales and other vulnerable species.

a humpback whale surfaces in front of a commercial vessel
Commercial shipping vessels and right whales – and humpback whales, like the one pictured here – come into close proximity near the Port of Boston. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA
david wiley holding a shearwater
Dr. David Wiley, the research coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, holds a great shearwater. In 2010, Wiley and several partners started the Right Whale Corporate Responsibility Project. Photo: Anne-Marie Runfola/NOAA

In 2018, the project sent report cards to 228 ships and 115 companies, helping them better understand the positive or negative impacts of their vessel practices. Companies that receive an A or A+ grade also receive a certificate recognizing their achievement. Wiley believes this positive reinforcement is crucial to the success of the project.

“We have been getting nice responses and thank yous, particularly now that we’re sending out certificates,” Wiley says. “We do get some that question the project and want to know why they received a particular grade, so we’re happy to provide that information, because they’ve read the report card and are much more aware of the ship strike rule.”

Wiley has found that most ships that receive failing grades are passing through the sanctuary for the first time and might be unaware of the ship strike reduction rule. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard, Boston Port Operators, Massachusetts Port Authority, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Wiley is increasing the project’s outreach efforts. In particular, the group employs the WhaleAlert smartphone app, which they helped create for iOS and Android products. The app helps mariners understand where they need to slow down and also allows boaters to report whale sightings, which in turn helps other vessels avoid the whales. The app was piloted in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and is now used along the entire Eastern Seaboard, on the West Coast, in Alaska, and in the Arabian Sea.

“We make all these rules, but there are no stop signs, no ‘go slow’ signs, no lines in the water, so it’s hard to comply,” Wiley says. “WhaleAlert puts those lines on digital charts for mariners and lets them know what they need to do.”

Project partners continue to expand their outreach efforts, and they believe their work to date has had a positive impact in protecting North Atlantic right whales. About 75 percent of the 228 ships and 115 companies that were sent report cards in 2018 received an A or A+ grade. One year after the program’s launch, it received the 2011 award for Excellence in Science Communication from the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Stellwagen Bank’s program has also inspired similar projects in national marine sanctuaries along the California coast. According to Greater Farallones Association resource protection specialist Jessica Morten, ship compliance with speed reduction rules in Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries increased 20 percent in two years. Morten is also generating the first set of report cards from Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Close to 50 percent of the ships that passed through the Northern California sanctuaries this year received an A.

right whale mother and calf
Seven new calves were born to North Atlantic right whales this year. The NOAA Fisheries speed regulation and the Right Whale Corporate Responsibility Project give these calves a better chance at surviving in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Now, when we ask “What makes the North Atlantic right whale 'right'?,” the answer may be that this is the right time for conservation programs involving industry, government, and nonprofits. This year, the North Atlantic right whale population welcomed seven new calves. As these calves learn how to feed on the masses of zooplankton in the sanctuary or try breaching for the first time, the Right Whale Corporate Responsibility Project does right by these whales. By monitoring compliance to NOAA Fisheries regulations, the project gives these calves a better chance of surviving and having calves of their own.

Yaamini Venkataraman is a volunteer social media intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at the University of Washington.