At the New Brunswick Museum, the right whale skeleton is a hit. Children gaze up in awe at the 40-foot-long assembly, which hangs from the ceiling with dinosaurlike grandeur. One boy points out to his mother that she could fit the family car inside its ribcage.
But for right whale researchers, this is more than a skeleton: It’s the remains of Delilah, a female whale they’d studied for more than a decade, observing her courtships, the parenting of her first calf, and, sadly, her death in 1993 off Grand Manan Island, 50 miles southwest of here.
“When you study these animals, it definitely gets personal,” says Laurie Murison of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station. She saw the whale with her calf two weeks before she was struck by a passing ship. “You lose too many that just shouldn’t die,” she says.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered species on Earth, with a population of fewer than 400. Slow, docile, and rich in oils, whalers saw them as the “right” whale to target until the 18th century, when they became too rare to seek out. Despite being protected from hunting for more than a century, it remains on the verge of extinction, with far too many being struck by ships or fatally entangled in fishing gear.
“Basically it’s a political decision,” says Michael J. Moore of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution, who does forensic autopsies of whales. “There are a lot of things we could be doing to help these whales that we apparently are not willing to do.”
For the past quarter century, scientists have been struggling to understand and protect the species, deploying boats and planes, satellite tags and listening buoys, and even dogs specially trained to sniff out whale poop for analysis.
In the process, the North Atlantic right has become one of the most thoroughly documented species in the world, with an estimated 90 percent of its individuals cataloged, often including their relationships to one another. The scientists’ findings have put them in a collision course with lobstermen, shipping firms, and the White House, which is accused of obstructing measures to protect the whales from ship strikes.
Scientists have found that preventing the deaths of just two female right whales each year could make the difference between survival and extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service has drawn up new rules to protect them.
While new regulations will come into effect next year requiring many lobstermen to use only nonbuoyant lines with their traps, rules to prevent ship strikes have been blocked by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The rules require ships to reduce speed to 10 knots when traveling in places and at times when the whales are likely to be present. Research has shown that whales can avoid ships moving at this speed.
But an OMB review of the rule, which normally takes 90 days, has lasted more than 18 months. In April, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California wrote the OMB urging them to release the rule without further delay. He wrote that the “delay appears to be due to baseless objections raised by White House officials including officials in the Office of the Vice President” and noted that Executive Order 12866 required the agency to complete their review within 120 days.
“Here’s a crystal clear example of this administration impeding any progress on endangered species that might impact big business,” says Scott Kraus, a leading expert on right whales. “Someone in the vice president’s office apparently has decided that it’s not worth the cost of slowing down ships to save whales.”
In a new development Aug. 25, the Bush administration proposed watering down the rule, reducing the area affected by the speed limits.
An OMB spokeswoman, Jane Lee, said she could not comment on rules that are undergoing review. “However, we are confident the … process will provide an approach that will achieve our shared goals,” she said. She maintained that the delay did not violate Executive Order 12866, but declined to elaborate.
Unlike their colleagues who study fruit flies or mice, right whale researchers invariably get to know individual whales, even their behavioral tics. The whales live to be 100 or more.
That’s where whale poop comes in. Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington adapted fecal sampling techniques he’d developed for studying grizzly bears and elephants. His lab isolates and analyzes not only diet and parasite loads, but also stress, reproductive hormones, and, using DNA, the animal’s identity and family relationships.
“It’s the most abundant animal material in nature, and it’s packed with information,” he says.
The trick: finding whale poop in the few minutes before it sinks. That meant training dogs to sniff them out as they ride in the bow of an open skiff, no mean feat given that the dog has to communicate when the scent is lost and regained so the boat driver can close in on the target. Dr. Wasser trained a tennis-ball-obsessed Rottweiler to do it in exchange for a tennis ball. Other dogs have since been trained to track killer whales.
“One of the dogs we use now was from a pound because he was unmanageable,” Wasser says. “But in pairing detection of fecal samples with the reward of a tennis ball, it channels their motivations and they become really well-behaved dogs.”
DNA samples reveal a struggling population. All calves were born of parents who were more genetically dissimilar than the population’s norm, suggesting that more closely related animals can’t reproduce. This may help explain their slow recovery, says Tim Frasier of the University of Trent in Peterborough, Ontario, who conducted the analysis.
Dr. Frasier found good news, too. Researchers thought they had sampled the DNA of 70 percent of all male right whales, so they’d expected to identify the fathers of 70 percent of the calves. “Turned out we only had 45 percent of the fathers sampled,” he says. “That means there are more habitat areas that we don’t know about yet.”