Cetaceans in the Media: A Right Whale of a Story

in The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development

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Introduction

It was like a multiple murder mystery. Who or what was killing North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St Lawrence? Why so many? And—in the summer of 2017—what were so many whales even doing in the Gulf?

By September, 12 whales had been found dead and news of each tolled like a bell. Cetacean biologists say that barely 500 North Atlantic right whales remain. Hunted almost to extinction two centuries ago, their survival as a species is an issue of urgent concern for marine scientists and environmentalists. The deaths were a staggering loss for an endangered species and they caught international media attention.

In Atlantic Canada, the whales’ plight became the ‘Story of the Summer’. Print, broadcast, and online media had news about them almost daily. Reports told of observers’ surprise at their large numbers in the Gulf and of speculation about the effect of climate change on migration patterns. Environmentalists blamed some deaths on entanglement in fishing gear. Necropsies implicated ‘ship strikes’—hit-and-run collisions with tankers, cruise ships and other large vessels. Chasing so many leads was a tough test of the capacity of the news media to cover events out of sight of land. For members of the ocean community—scientists and environmentalists—it was an opportunity to deploy impressive media skills on behalf of animals they had come to know well through years of research and activism.

As Told through a Lens

A stream of visuals sustained the momentum of the media coverage. Pictures of whales are compelling. They are elite mammals, enormous, smart, and talkative. They travel in families and surface for photo ops. Pictures of whales, living and dead, and of people looking at whales and the remains of whales told the story on television and in social media and drew readers to folio features in newspapers. By itself, a 60-tonne whale pulled up for a necropsy on a beach is an arresting image, especially when people in protective scrubs are slicing into the huge body and using the arm of a backhoe to roll back thick layers of blubber. Crowds of onlookers complete the impression of communities energized by wonder and pity.

Fresh images from many sources kept the story from fading. Without pictures, reports of a whale floating lifeless at sea are worth, at most, a few lines of script. Newsroom budgets rarely provide for the boat or helicopter needed to shoot events out of sight of land. Increasingly, producers rely on outside sources for pictures to tell ocean stories.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) supplied one widely shared image, that of pathologist Dr. Pierre-Yves Dumont squatting precariously on a whale carcass awash in the Gulf.1 The Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also provided the media with boat-based video. Environmental groups understand well the value of visuals as support both for advocacy and fundraising. As one reporter puts it, offshore video that tells a story is like ‘catnip’ to television programmers.

Commitment and Complexity

A striking example of media reliance on outside sources came with the death of Joe Howlett, a fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, who was killed 10 July while freeing an entangled whale in the Gulf. News coverage focused on his commitment and sacrifice. Tributes that showed him in action on a whale-rescue boat used pictures from a promotional video posted on YouTube the year before by the International Federation for Animal Welfare. His death had an immediate impact. Authorities in both Canada and the United States quickly suspended all further whale-rescue activity.

Across Atlantic Canada, local broadcasters, newspapers, and Canadian Press bureaus all scrambled to tell their own right whale stories. There were dead whales off northeast Newfoundland, necropsies on Prince Edward Island, and fears about the impact of conservation measures on the lobster and crab fishery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Taken together, the stories were practically a lecture-hall illustration of the densely woven complexity of coastal ocean issues.

The media were hard put to connect so many dots. Marine beat reporters—specialists in ocean science or policy—always rare, are now almost extinct in news organizations. Journalism-schooled generalists are skilled at assembling facts and making them accessible to readers and viewers. Few have the experience and contacts within the ocean community to go much deeper. And in summer, veteran reporters go on vacation. For their replacements, the discovery of yet another dead right whale was sometimes their first big saltwater story.

What the Sources Said

So it was that the credibility of the coverage became dependent on scientists who have invested their careers in right whale research. Shore-side reporters had few grounds to question their opinions about what should be done and none to challenge their urgency. A key source was Montreal-born Dr. Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a veteran of a campaign fifteen years earlier to protect right whales endangered by shipping in the Bay of Fundy and south of Nova Scotia. She was someone who could tell the story of the right whales in words that reporters can use. “My job,” as she puts it, “is to be a scientist. A scientist who can interpret science.”

Others frequently in the coverage included Sean Brillant of the Canadian Wildlife Federation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and, in dozens of news clips and interviews, Tonya Wimmer, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the founder of MARS. Her organization had reported the death of three whales in the Gulf two years earlier and had predicted more as migration routes reached colder waters. Her concern was the lack of a ‘top-down commitment’ by government to change fishery and shipping regulations to reduce entanglements and ship strikes.

Canada’s species at risk law does prescribe intervention, but Ottawa cannot easily ignore its economic impact. Protected feeding grounds for whales could be off limits to snow crab fishermen and other inshore groups. Cutting cruise ship speeds would win no welcome in an industry that understands time as money.

Weighing against these concerns was a potential public relations disaster. Inquiries about whales from newsrooms across North America and Europe were flooding the DFO office in Moncton, New Brunswick, more calls—said one communications officer—than in the previous two years combined: “We would have our cell phones to our ears with our desk phones ringing and e-mails backing up on our screens.”

The impact of stories about dead whales in Canadian waters was the stuff of a political nightmare. Never mind the message to tourists coming for a whale-watching cruise. What if the stories triggered demands from American conservationists for sanctions against imports of Canadian crab and lobster?

Fast Action at Last

Political hesitation ended on 11 August on a government wharf in Shediac, New Brunswick. “Canada takes the protection, conservation, and recovery of endangered species very seriously,” declared Transport Minister Marc Garneau. “The recent deaths of several North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are extremely concerning.”2

The minister announced new restrictions on vessel speeds in the Gulf. To reduce entanglements, DFO Minister Romeo Leblanc had already closed one snow crab fishery and now promised to limit or delay others. He also pledged to keep better watch on whales in the Gulf and keep mariners better informed of where they were feeding. For scientists and environmentalists, the federal commitment was a measure of success. Ms. Wimmer was pleased to concede “we’ve never had action that swift before.”

Moira Brown also looked back with satisfaction. She had done more than thirty media interviews. With many of her colleagues, she shares a perception that what you say to a reporter is rarely how it will be reported. Still, she felt obliged to respond when they called about ‘the carnage in the Gulf’. And in the end, she said, it worked out for the whales.

“I think the news coverage has been good for increasing awareness of right whales,” Brown said. “The media plays a role in public engagement for protection measures. This story went around the world and the politicians pay attention.”

The story, of course, was far from over.

In September, the CBC New Brunswick produced an in-depth podcast series entitled “Deep Trouble: North Atlantic Right Whales in Peril.”3 Ships in the Gulf quickly put the new speed limits to test and federal authorities fined four—including a Canadian Coast Guard vessel—for ignoring them. Rather than slow down, cruise lines opted to stay out of the Gulf, a painful setback for shopkeepers in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and the Port of Gaspé, Quebec. The cruise industry argued it needed longer notice because tour schedules are set two years before sailing dates.

Four fatalities in American waters brought the death toll among North Atlantic right whales to 16 for the year. In October, DFO and environmental agencies issued a joint report. Necropsies had identified at least seven fatalities as the result of industrial activity: four by ship strikes and three by entanglement in fishing gear. Of the seven, five were males and two were females with ages ranging from two years to 37.4 As Ms. Wimmer observed, “This makes this pretty much the deadliest year we’ve seen since the days of whaling.”

A Sad Story with Progress?

A sad story, then? A story of too little, too late? Not entirely, not if it includes the impact of media coverage on this complex ocean issue. One measure was the response to “Let’s Talk Whales,” a public consultation the DFO initiated in August. In three months, more than 20,000 people responded with 200-plus suggestions about how to help the survival of not only right whales in the Gulf but also belugas in the lower St. Lawrence River and southern killer whales on the west coast of Canada. At an international whale conference in Halifax, scientists agreed the survival of the right whale species will require a management plan for the entire range through which the animals move rather than only the specific areas where they tend to congregate at different times of the year.

For government, the challenge was to translate this sense of urgency into action and to consolidate support for the measures announced in August. Early in 2018, well before a new snow crab season, DFO Minister Leblanc announced rule changes requiring fishermen to reduce the lengths of rope floating on the surface, maintain closer count of their traps and report any missing gear. Protecting endangered whales is, he said, “a responsibility that weighs heavily on all of us” and he described the rules as “meaningful action to address the threats to whales in a way that is also mindful of our partners.”5

Complicating all plans, of course, were the right whales themselves. Acoustic monitoring of their calls had shown noticeable changes in migration patterns between 2010 and 2014.6 In general, the places where they tended to gather had shifted further north along the Atlantic seaboard and for longer periods. In 2017, observers in the Gulf of St Lawrence counted 114 migrating right whales, the most ever, with some remaining in the area into October. Looking ahead, the story would be where they returned, in what numbers, and how well we learned to protect them.

A. Auld, “Seventh right whale found dead in Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Toronto Star, 7 July 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/07/07/seventh-right-whale-found-dead-in-gulf-of-st-lawrence.html.

Government of Canada, “Statement by Ministers Garneau and LeBlanc on actions taken to address the deaths of whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada News Release, 11 August 2017, https://www.canada.ca/en/transport-canada/news/2017/08/statement_by_ministersgarneauandleblanconactionstakentoaddressth.html.

The “Deep Trouble” podcast series is available at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/podcasts/new-brunswick/deep-trouble/.

P-Y. Daoust, E.L. Couture, T. Wimmer and L. Bourque, Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017 (Charlottetown, PEI: Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Marine Animal Response Society, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2017).

Government of Canada, “Minister LeBlanc announces new protections for whales,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada News Release, 23 January 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/fisheries-oceans/news/2018/01/minister_leblancannouncesnewprotectionsforwhales.html.

US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, “Shifting Presence of North Atlantic Right Whales Tracked with Passive Acoustics,” EurekAlert!, 15 November 2017, https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-11/nnfs-spo111417.php.

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The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development

Essays in Honor of Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918-2002)

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