Wednesday, August 21, 2019

We Need to Help What's Left of Right Whales

          This was another fun week on the harbor. We had some interesting catches at Camp Harborview this week, two 12.5” winter flounder were caught in our crab traps! It was a really surprising sight to see when we check the traps in the morning. This provided us with excellent opportunities to teach about the history of Boston Harbor, its clean-up, and how organisms were affected when it was heavily polluted. Some of the other campers were more focused on catching seaweed than fish!
One of our trapped flounder!
Campers pose with their catch!
Since this week we get to talk about what we felt was missing from our blogs, I decided to write about some charismatic megafauna. These animals often get a lot of coverage in the media, but we rarely get a chance to work with them. I decided to focus on my favorite whale and the state marine mammal of Massachusetts, the North Atlantic right whale. This whale is endangered with just over 400 individuals left in the wild. Their namesake is owed to whalers who claimed they were the “right” whales to hunt for oil. They were important in establishing the whaling industry in Massachusetts, however, this practice along with new challenges leaves the whales in peril.
Right whales are baleen whales, which means they have specialized sieve-like structures in their mouth that they use to filter out seawater and swallow whatever organisms they caught. Right whales, along with other baleen whales, feed on a variety of organisms from zooplankton to krill to small fish. 
During the prime of the whaling industry, hundreds of large ships called New Bedford their home and would set off on long voyages from there in hopes of harpooning a large right or sperm whale. Right whales provided materials for many commodities in the 18thand 19thcenturies. Their blubber would be rendered into oil that would be used primarily for lighting lamps and making soap. The baleen was used for a myriad of different products, from corsets to umbrellas. Even though whaling focus was eventually switched from the right whale onto the sperm whale, due to the valuable waxy secretion from the spermaceti organ, the damage had been done to the North Atlantic right whale populations. 
Close-up of a North Atlantic right whale
Breaching right whale
Although a lot of legislation was passed to protect marine mammals, these whales still face many challenges. The North Atlantic right whale has low calving rates and low numbers, so the species population grows very slowly. Shipping lanes often interfere with the migratory routes of these whales and collisions between ships and whales often occur. Whales have been known to get tangled in commercial fishing gear which can cause premature mortalities. Now, global climate change further threatens these animals by altering where and how much food is available for these whales. Hopefully, improvements to shipping lane regulations, fishing regulations, and climate change legislation are passed to help these creatures rebound. 
This week will be a bittersweet one. We get to go on a fishing trip with the fishing club, but Camp Harborview is ending, meaning we are nearing the end of summer and the beginning of classes. We still have a little bit of time left programming in the harbor, and I plan on enjoying every second of it!

Tight Lines!

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