Researchers hope gene study will reveal new clues in right whales' rapid decline

·4 min read
The New England Aquarium’s Philip Hamilton, a co-lead on a new research project that will study the genes of right whales, and his team are shown observing a right whale. (Brian Skerry - image credit)
The New England Aquarium’s Philip Hamilton, a co-lead on a new research project that will study the genes of right whales, and his team are shown observing a right whale. (Brian Skerry - image credit)

A new research project is preparing to analyze the genes of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an effort to understand what issues may be hurting their ability to breed.

Recognized by their callused heads and large size — weighing on average over 140,000 pounds — the number of right whales has been dropping for some time and there are only roughly 350 left.

"Since 2010, they've actually been declining, and what that tells us is the conservation efforts we're currently doing are inadequate in preventing this species from going extinct," said Timothy Frasier, a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax and a specialist in genetic analysis and marine mammal behaviour.

Fraser is one of the scientists working on a four-year $6-million research project being managed by Halifax-based Genome Atlantic, a non-profit that advocates for the social and economic benefits of genomics, in collaboration with the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Before the 17th century North Atlantic right whales may have numbered in the tens of thousands. The whales, which migrate north seasonally into Canadian waters to feed and mate, have been listed as endangered in the U.S. since 1970 and in Canada since 2005, and there are fewer than 100 breeding females left.

The genetics project is expected to run between July and September and will involve photographing and documenting the characteristics of whales, such as their age, skin health and size. Scientists will also be taking small samples from the whales which they will analyze for gene variations and abnormalities.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA Permit #20556/The Associated Press
Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA Permit #20556/The Associated Press

Frasier said analyzing their genetic makeup will help shine light on potential factors impacting their ability to breed.

"Right now we don't really understand what factors are limiting reproduction," said Frasier. "Inbreeding has been one of the main hypotheses."

Inbreeding in right whales may be problematic because it can create diseases or deformities in offspring due to both the father and mother having a similar genetic background. That may affect the next generation's ability to mate and have offspring of their own.

Right whales have been a major conservation concern in Canada and the United States. Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear have been blamed in many deaths.

Canada has imposed seasonal shipping-lane restrictions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where right whales migrate in the spring, as well as a regime of automatic fisheries closures when one is spotted in an area.

"We keep track of how many whales died from entanglement or died from vessels so we know that whales are getting entangled quite frequently," said Frasier. "Maybe they survive that entanglement, but if it's a female, for example, maybe she can never reproduce again because of the injuries or effect [caused by] that entanglement."

Frasier said those involved in the project plan to present their findings to Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well the National Marine Fisheries Service in the U.S. to help them better manage North Atlantic right whale conservation.

Brenna Frasier
Brenna Frasier

"The ultimate goal is to make right whale conservation more effective and more efficient," said Frasier. "By the end of this project, whatever our results are, they will have the most approximate impact on the government policy and procedures in both countries.

DFO told CBC News in an email that it is collaborating on the study, which will aid the department in its efforts to protect the right whale and help the population recover. One of the department's scientist who has extensive experience with right whale threat assessments will be involved in the work.

Philip Hamilton, a co-lead on the project and senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, said in a news release: "We need to make bold changes to how we use the oceans and to do so, we need as much understanding of the problem and cultural support for those changes."

Randle Hart, a specialist in the sociology of science at Saint Mary's University, will also be part of the team to help ensure the research is used properly to enact real-life policy change and development.

John Carrington/Savannah Morning News/AP
John Carrington/Savannah Morning News/AP

Sean Brillant, a conservation biologist and manager of marine programs for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, said North Atlantic right whales help ecosystems in important ways.

Right whales accumulate carbon in their bodies. That carbon is then released slowly over time.

"A large whale that weighs 80 tonnes sequesters about 30 tonnes of carbon and these animals can sometimes live from 100 to 150 years, so that is a lot of carbon held up," Brillant said.

Whales naturally fertilize the ocean as well as other marine life with their feces.

"They dive to the bottom of the ocean, eat bugs, come up to the surface of the ocean, then they poop it out," Brillant said. "The International Monetary Fund has identified that this carbon cycling process has great economic value that is being undervalued and under-appreciated."

Frasier said he hopes the research will make conserving the creatures easier and more efficient. He also said he's optimistic they can recover.

"North Atlantic right whales have lived through lots of trauma in the past," said Frasier. "I think they're survivors and that if we can limit our impact on them, they have a chance."

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