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Endangered whales begin to recover

The population of a once near-extinct whale is on the rise, partly because of an unlikely collaboration between a Canadian oil company and an aquarium.

Ten years ago, New Brunswick-based Irving Oil rerouted its shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy to move away from the feeding grounds of the North Atlantic right whale, reducing the risk of a collision.

It's a move that scientists say has played a great role in the recovery of the endangered species.

Dr. Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, said in the past decade, the right whale population has grown by an average of two per cent annually, from about 350 whales to more than 450.

"The animals were so few in number when we started doing this that we were literally trying to reduce mortality one whale at a time," said Brown, whose aquarium continues to work with Irving to monitor the recovery of the whales.

"So, this is huge."

Brown said the whales venture from Florida to the North Atlantic to feed during the summer months. The ocean currents in the Bay of Fundy concentrate plankton into dense patches, said Brown.

But while the animals were feeding, vessels were steaming through the waters, hitting and killing the whales.

"It was just an overlap of time and space. The whales were here, the ships were here," said Brown, speaking from Campobello Island, N.B. "It's an accidental overlap."

By moving the shipping lanes about six kilometres away from the feeding grounds, it reduced the risk of collisions by 90 per cent, said Brown.

"The fact that we actually had the room in the Bay of Fundy to move the lanes is what allowed us to move forward with that as the conservation measure to reduce the risk of mortality," said Brown.

In fact, since the rerouting, there have been no known collisions between a ship and a whale, she said.

It's the whale's unique characteristics that allows scientists to track their mortality rate. When a right whale dies, its thick layer of blubber causes the 15-metre long, 50-ton animal to float to the surface of the water, making it easy to spot, said Brown.

"It's the only way that we know that this is working, is that we have fewer dead whales," said Brown. "We feel pretty comfortable that by not finding more carcasses that this is working."

The whales have also been doing their part in the recovery, said Brown. She said the right whale calving rate has doubled to about 22 calves per year since 2001.

"And because the lanes have been moved, we're ready. We're ready for that population to explode," said Brown.

"There's still room for more growth from a biological standpoint, but what we have seen is encouraging."

John Logan, manager of project management at Irving Oil, said it takes a little longer for the ships to get into port, but other than that, the change has gone relatively unnoticed.

"The impact has been negligible on the operations. It hasn't been noticeable," said Logan from Saint John, N.B.

"Getting into it, we weren't sure what the impact would be, but it worked out really well."

Irving said it's the first time that shipping lanes have been rerouted for the protection of an endangered species.

The Canadian Press
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