TORONTO — CANADIAN biologist Moira Brown will soon be back at sea researching whale behavior - and doubling as a sea-faring traffic cop to keep rare North Atlantic right whales and cargo ships miles apart.
Along with the Canadian Coast Guard, Dr. Brown hopes this summer not only to study the right whales, but also to save them from being accidentally rammed and killed by commercial ships plying busy shipping channels near Nova Scotia.
Unfortunately, the right whale seems blissfully unconcerned about ship traffic. Little distracts these endangered 50-foot, 70-ton mammals when they are feeding or mating - even a huge container ship, Brown says.
Since October, three whales have died after colliding with ships along the East Coast. Up to half of the 30 right whale deaths since 1987 are thought to be from run-ins with ships.
Efforts to head off such incidents are increasing. In the US, the Navy, Coast Guard, and Army Corps of Engineers fund whale conservation groups to make daily "early warning" overflights that note whale locations and then radio that information to authorities and commercial shipping lines.
A year ago, Canada's Coast Guard began working with whale researchers to warn ships of whale locations. While doing her research, Brown plans to radio the Coast Guard, which will then radio the whales' positions to ships.
But since there is no government funding for right whale research or spotting in Canada, when biologists stop tracking the whales at the end of summer, the Coast Guard will have no volunteer helpers.
"Collisions are the leading cause of mortality for right whales," says Brown, who teaches at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. "These whales don't have any real predators, so what we're trying to do is reduce the potential for whales to get rammed."
Whalers originally gave the species its name because it was the "right" whale to kill, floating after death. The animals were also prized for their high-quality oil and whale bone.
Almost all northern right whales are catalogued according to markings on their tails. One of Brown's favorites is a whale named Lucky, who bears propeller scars from a collision it survived. Many others, however, are not so fortunate. Last October, an unnamed right whale washed up on Long Island, N. S., with large propeller gashes.
"Our government has got to sit up and take notice," says Deborah Tobin, an ecologist with East Coast Ecosystems, which runs a Canadian right whale adoption program to fund research. "This is a wildlife tragedy on par with the pandas and they [the Canadian government] are depending on a few volunteers to save the right whale species."
The northern right whale population has only slightly rebounded since being declared an endangered species in 1935, when there were just 50 left. In recent years the population has hovered at 300 to 350.
Meanwhile, opportunities for deadly collisions are growing because the species, for reasons unknown, is congregating ever more tightly inside busy East Coast shipping lanes from Georgia to Nova Scotia.
The mouth of the Bay of Fundy near Grand Manan Island is a good example of the problem. A favorite right whale hangout in summer, it is also a zone crossed by two major shipping lanes. Yet increasing numbers of right whales are choosing to summer there, where the cold, upwelling Labrador Current brings a smorgasbord of organisms to feed upon.
About 70 whales used to summer near Grand Manan, but up to 180 whales have been seen frolicking amid the passing ships in recent years. Since 1993, the right whales have also added three months to their summer fun in the shipping lanes, appearing in June instead of July and leaving in December rather than October.
While the three recent collision deaths may not seem like much, they are significant when combined with other whale deaths and the low-reproductive rate of the species. Female right whales give birth on average only once every three or four years.
"Collisions are a big problem," says Philip Hamilton, an assistant scientist with the Right Whale Research Project of the New England Aquarium in Boston. "In the last several years we've had 10 to13 more whales die than were born. In a population of 300, you're talking about extinction in less than 30 years."
Fortunately, northern right whales this year bucked the negative trend by giving birth to a bumper crop of 20 calves this winter in the warm waters between Savannah, Ga., and Cape Canaveral, Fla. Traveling north in summer, females and calves will soon be joined by juveniles and males on their way to Cape Cod and Nantucket, Mass., - and two zones near Nova Scotia. Ms. Tobin and others say funding is needed to look into the sounds that might warn whales away from ships. Then a device could be attached to the bow of ships to warn whales away. Legislation is also needed to give some enforcement teeth, she and others agree.
While many vessel captains seem anxious to avoid the whales, it is purely a voluntary matter. Even if a ship's captain were to ram a pod of whales after being warned, there would be no penalty unless intent could be established, a Canadian official says.
"Someone can always say, 'I was in my bunk,' " says Jerry Conway, marine mammals adviser for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "There are a thousand-and-one excuses."