Natalie Pawelski: The predicament of the right whale
(CNN) -- Scientists have abandoned efforts to save a wounded whale off Cape Cod and free it from a fishing line hooked through its mouth. They tried to help the animal, but say there's nothing more they can do. The animal is a northern right whale, among the most endangered of any big mammal anywhere on the face of the Earth. The whale entangled off Massachusetts is a male of breeding age, probably a father, certainly a potential contributor to the future of the species. CNN's Natalie Pawelski elaborates on the predicament of the northern right whale.
Q: Why are these whales endangered?
PAWELSKI: Whalers christened the species -- then almost drove it extinct. Whalers considered northern right whales the "right whales" to hunt because they were slow-moving, stayed close to shore, were full of valuable oil, and were very blubbery, so they floated for quite awhile after they died, which made it easier on the whalers. Right whales aren't hunted anymore, but people are still killing them by accident: The No. 1 known cause of death for right whales is being hit by ships. Right now they are the most endangered great whale in the world.
Q: How many are left? Where do they hang out?
PAWELSKI: Researchers figure there are about 320 to 340 northern right whales left. They're migratory: The only known calving ground is off the Georgia/North Florida coast, where the whales are born in the winter-- weighing in at about one ton each. Then they make their way north, past Cape Cod, migrating to their summer feeding and breeding grounds in the North Atlantic. For northern right whales, the biggest summer hot spot is Canada's Bay of Fundy.
Q: What's the biggest threat to the whales?
PAWELSKI: Boats -- ship strikes are the biggest known killer of northern right whales. This year, for example, two new calves have been confirmed killed by boats -- and a mother whale off Florida sported big gashes in her back and tail from a boat propeller, but survived. Another problem is fixed fishing gear, like the thick line that's wrapped around the whale researchers have been trying to rescue off Massachusetts.
Q: Do the whales seem to be attracted to the boats' noise or are they following the fishermen because they're tossing out fish? Or are the boats fishing in the whales' mating or feeding grounds?
PAWELSKI: By nature, the whales live in harm's way. Their calving ground is near bustling ports and military facilities. Their migration crosses busy shipping lanes and fishing grounds. And their feeding grounds are full of plankton, their main food source -- but plankton attracts little fish, which attract bigger fish and fishing vessels. Right whales don't seem particularly attracted to ships -- but they don't seem able to avoid them, either, and researchers aren't sure why.
Q: What efforts are being made to save the whales? Are we breeding them anywhere or just trying to save the whales that still are alive?
PAWELSKI: Captive breeding just isn't practical -- adults can weigh 50 tons, and if you can believe it, a mating "event" (as they're called) can include 40 males courting a single female.
So the focus is on protecting whales in the wild, which isn't easy in a big, busy ocean. The most intense conservation effort involves the calving grounds: during winter months when right whale mothers and babies congregate off the coast of Georgia and Florida, there's a sort of early warning system for ships in the area. Airborne researchers keep track of the whales and radio in coordinates to the Coast Guard, which alerts ships to keep an eye out. It seems to be working -- in the few years since the monitoring system started, there hasn't been a confirmed ship strike in the calving grounds.
Q: Are there any in captivity that folks could go see?
PAWELSKI: No. The only place to see these whales is in the wild. The best spot is the Bay of Fundy, in New Brunswick, Canada, during the summer.
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