Dangerous Waters for Whales
STORY: While most Alaskans huddled next to their wood stoves this past winter, thousands of humpback whales basked in the warm waters off Hawaii. They spent the winter mating and giving birth. But increasingly, Hawaii is becoming a dangerous place for Alaska's humpback whales.
Lori Mazzuca is a graduate student at Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology. She tracks the number of whales killed each year around the islands.
MAZZUCA: "I can tell you that one of them was pretty gruesome. It was a newborn calf. It still had its umbilical cord attached. This was in 1996. It washed ashore alive, but it had propeller cuts all down its back. So literally a boat just ran right over the top of it."
Lori Mazzuca analyzed humpback deaths around the Hawaiian Islands over the last 25 years. She found that, on average, one humpback died each year. But beginning in the 1990s, humpback deaths surged.
MAZZUCA: "There was one animal found dead in 1972, but one to four years at a time would go by with no whales reported dead. Then, 1987 was the first year we had reports of two whales found dead. In 1991 there were two. Same thing in 1992. Then one every year after that until 1996, when we had eight."
The culprits are discarded fishing lines and nets, and speedboats that unknowingly run over the whales as they surface to breathe. Already this year, scientists have found four dead humpbacks. Two had been run over by boats, and two died after becoming entangled in fishing nets.
Especially worrisome is the fact that newborn calves account for 80 percent of the humpback deaths. Shannon Atkinson says the deaths are the preventable result of a growing human population. She's an associate researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and coauthor of the study.
ATKINSON: "If this is an increasing trend of animals being impacted by human activity--that is, interactions with fishing gear or strikes by moving vessels--then this is something we should become aware of and try to educate the public that this is not something we want to see happening with an endangered species."
Despite the dangers, hundreds of humpbacks do survive, and the population overall is slowly increasing. With the arrival of spring, the whales return to Alaska, where they'll spend the summer gorging themselves on plankton.
OUTRO: For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Doug Schneider reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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