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Nature News
by Marlene Harris

Winter 2001   —   Canada Working to Save Right Whales

The northern right whale is in serious trouble; the present population is estimated to be only 300, and numbers continue to decline. In Canada, although there is no official endangered species act, the federal government plans to put in place, strict conservation measures this year. In contrast, the U.S.A., despite having the US Endangered Species Act, has not officially approved a species recovery plan, yet the right whale inhabits US waters, mostly off Cape Cod, although the Bay of Fundy seems to be their primary home.

The northern right whale, so named as it was considered by whalers to be the "right whale" to hunt, has never made a comeback, despite international protection since the l930s. (There is a southern population of right whales, whose numbers are considerably higher. These whales are thought to be genetically distinct from the northern population.)

Whale biologists are trying to determine where exactly northern right whales go throughout the year; knowing their travel path will lead to measures such as closing fishing areas during migration or changing shipping lanes to avoid collisions. Ship collision has been the cause of death in at least one third of the right whales which have been autopsied over the last few years. Over two thirds have shown scars from fishing gear entanglement.

The federal government announced last fall, it would provide $250,000 in funding for the right whale recovery program. This funding is earmarked to support the Canadian Right Whale Disentanglement Team, whose objective is to free whales from fishing nets. Some of the funding will also support initiatives such as modifying fishing gear to reduce entanglement, and genetic sampling to determine the extent of in–breeding in the whales.

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