Right Whales In The Wrong Place--No Bones About It
By Kurt Aldag
October 24, 2007
UNH mechanical engineering undergraduate research team (L-R, Prof. Igor Tsukrov,
Matthew Packard, Alexander Unrein, and Robert Marsella) performing experiments
on the right whale mandible
“There are so few North Atlantic right whales today,” says Igor
Tsukrov, associate professor of mechanical engineering, “that marine
biologists who track them have names for each of them. So, when one dies, it
is as if a friend has been lost.”
Tsukrov hopes his research may someday help save the North Atlantic right
whale from extinction.
Protected from commercial exploitation since 1935, and declared an endangered
species since 1974, the North Atlantic right whale population, nevertheless,
continues to decline. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, only 300-350
known individuals remain along the continental shelf of North America, making
the species the rarest of all whales.
One reason for the lack of population recovery is that the small population
size makes breeding difficult. Another cause for concern, however, is that
many mother whales and their calves have been accidentally killed en route
from their breeding grounds off the Florida coast to Cape Cod, where they cut
across Boston Harbor’s international shipping routes to the Gulf of Maine,
looking for food.
Six North Atlantic right whales were accidentally killed in 2006—four
of them by ship collisions, or strikes. Measuring as much as 55 feet long and
weighing up to 70 tons, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest
mammals on earth.
Unfortunately, the lumbering sea giant is no match for cargo ships weighing
as much as 500,000 tons bearing down on them at 20 knots in the open sea. That
would be comparable to an 80,000-pound semi-truck running through a six-pound
toy poodle at 23 miles per hour.
Changing speeds by even a few knots, or altering routes, could cost the shipping
industry $50-150 million per year in lost time and extra fuel costs. Before
any changes to regulations can be made, clear data proving the speeds and forces
on impact of ship collisions that kill whales are needed. In walks Tsukrov
and his UNH colleagues, who were funded by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) to determine the precise bio-mechanics of what happens
when a ship strikes North Atlantic right whales.
“Whale bones are unlike any other mammal bones,” says Tsukrov. “Whales
float in water in a zero-gravity state and do not need the bone rigidity to
support them the way that land mammals do. As a result, whale bones have less
bio-mineral density, making them spongier and lighter than land mammal vertebra.”
Last year, NOAA took a big step toward protecting North Atlantic right whales
by proposing changes in the Boston Harbor Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS).
The NOAA recommendations involved a 12-degree shift in the northern leg of
the TSS and narrowing the two shipping traffic lanes by approximately one-half
mile each during whale migrations.
The International Maritime Office, representing the interests of the international
shipping industry, endorsed the proposal in December, 2006, which became effective
July 1, 2007. NOAA calculates the realignment is expected to provide a 58%
reduction in ship strike risk to migrating North Atlantic right whales.
Meanwhile, a government plan for lowering the shipping speed limit to 10 knots
(11.5 miles per hour) during whale migrations was proposed by NOAA in June,
2006. The World Shipping Council, whose 28 members carry an estimated $500
billion worth of goods into and out of U.S. ports each year, has blocked speed
limits, arguing in a letter to the White House budget office that “there
is no meaningful scientific bases to conclude that the chosen action will protect
Contrary to the World Shipping Council claims, Tsukrov says, “The results
of our three years of research clearly show that in the case of a ship strike
higher ship speeds result in more damage to a whale and a substantial increase
in the probability of whale mortality.”
Tsukrov will submit the final research results to Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institute (WHOI) in December.. WHOI is expected to officially present their
report to NOAA, including Tsukrov’s data, in January 2008.
Working with marine biology specialists Michael Moore and Regina Campbell-Malone
of the WHOI, Tsukrov’s UNH collaborators include professor Ken Baldwin
(director of the Center for Ocean Engineering) and civil engineering professor