Whale-rescue program in trouble

Whale-rescue program in trouble

by Greg O'Brien

This article originally appeared in the Providence Journal on Sunday, August 31, 2008

It is 5:30 P.M. on a stunning lateAugust day here, and the sun is low on the horizon, presaging the endof summer with an inky blue sky and a golden reflection on the water.Not far from MacMillan Wharf, just down from Town Hall in a statelyclapboard home on Bradford Street once owned by renowned industrialistand art collector Walter B. Chrysler Jr., Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies Executive Director Rich Delaney sits at his desk, pondering the futureof this world-class scientific research and public-education center andits expanding vision. Its vision, he notes, has morphed beyond thecenter’s foundational study and preservation of endangered right whalesand humpback whales. But today, he’s all about whales.

“We’re a nexus between good science and proper management,” declaresDelaney, no stranger to either, given his previous tenures as formerMassachusetts assistant secretary of environmental affairs and formerdirector of the Massachusetts Coastal Zone program. “It’s science witha deadline!”

The deadline that most concerns Delaney, named last year as head of thecoastal-studies center founded 32 years ago, is the pending depletionin December of $450,000 in federal grants for the center’sdistinguished Whale Disentanglement Program. This program covers a wideswath of ocean, from the Bay of Fundy, in Canada, to Key West, Fla.

The deadline that most concerns Delaney, named last year as head ofthe coastal-studies center founded 32 years ago, is the pendingdepletion in December of $450,000 in federal grants for the center’sdistinguished Whale Disentanglement Program. This program covers a wideswath of ocean, from the Bay of Fundy, in Canada, to Key West, Fla.

In partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service, under thedomain of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),the center oversees a network of more than 800 scientists andvolunteers called the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network(ALWDN), which responds to whales caught in debris and fishing gear —the mammals’ prime cause of death, along with ship strikes. Since 1984,when the highly publicized effort began, the not-for-profitProvincetown Center for Coastal Studies has freed more than 97 largewhales from life-threatening entanglements, as it has such other marineanimals as dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea turtles. It is the onlyorganization federally authorized to disentangle large, free-swimmingwhales.

“Without an infusion of additional monies now being sought, theprogram is in jeopardy,” says Delaney, noting that most, if not all, ofthe surviving 350 North Atlantic right whales, up to 56 feet long, willhave migrated to Cape Cod Bay by January, and will remain in localwaters until May, when migrating humpback whales, up to 50 feet long,arrive and stay through October.

“On their migration up from Florida in the fall, the right whaleswill run thorough an obstacle course of entangling fishing nets anddebris, ” says Delaney, noting that coastal-center teams disentangledeight right whales last year, most from January through April. Theright whale was so named in 18th Century days because it was the “rightwhale” to catch — “slow, right for the picking, plenty of whale oil andthey floated after being harpooned,” says Delaney, noting that thespecies is now closely monitored under the coastal center’s Right WhaleHabitat Studies program.

“The principle disentanglementtechnique,” adds Delaney in a reference to the center’s Web site (www.coastalstudies.org), “is a modification of an old whaling practicecalled kegging, involves attaching large floats, or kegs, to the gearentangling the animal. The floats add buoyancy and drag to the animal,making it difficult for it to dive, eventually tiring it out. Thedesired result is a relatively immobile animal that is safer to cutfree.” The kegging system, he adds, is designed for swift releaseshould the rescue attempt fail; in those cases, a transponder or smallbuoy is attached to track the whale for a more appropriate time todisentangle.

In early July, for example, a Provincetown Center for CoastalStudies team responded to a nine-year-old female humpback whale thatwas reported severely entangled with one-inch line. After seven hoursof fighting strong southwest winds, the rescue team succeeded inremoving much of the life-threatening entangled rope, but the whale’slong-term health will not be known for months. The young humpback,known to researchers as Estuary, had been identified earlier as part ofthe center’s Aerial Photo Identification Program and catalogued in aresearch consortium with Boston’s New England Aquarium.

Such rescue efforts — often splashed on front pages of newspapersacross America or on the evening news — are in as much peril as thewhales themselves, if additional funding is not obtained by December.

The pending funding cut in the whale-disentanglement program,representing close to 25 percent of PCCS’s annual operating budget andhalf of its federal grants, would deeply damage the program. Additionalprivate funding and/or an emergency federal supplement are beingurgently sought.

“Hopefully with our congressional delegation’s help, money will beallocated in the ’09 budget, but with a new administration and a newCongress, next year’s budget won’t take affect for least three months,and perhaps six to nine months,” says Delaney, noting that CongressmanWilliam Delahunt, of the 10th Congressional District, and MassachusettsSenators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy were working diligently torestore the funding. “At the moment, no money is available for thisprogram in January, and we don’t want to be in the position of havingto dismantle it, even temporarily.”

Concedes Delahunt’s chief of staff, Mark Forest, “We’re facing acrisis for the disentanglement program. Congress has significantly cutfunding while demands have grown.” Forest, however, is hopeful that thefunds ultimately will be restored. Delahunt, he said, has won initialapproval for a $500,000 disentanglement-fund earmark in the HouseAppropriations Committee’s draft of the fiscal ’09 budget. But earmarks— appropriation requests outside the line-item federal budget — can bepolitically contentious, particularly in an election year when thedivisive topic of such earmarks is sure to be debated again. Meanwhile,Delahunt is also speaking with top NOAA officials about “reprogramming”funds for whale-disentanglement efforts while the federal budget isbeing vetted, Forest said

Acknowledging the uncertainty of politics and a new presidency,Forest noted, “The coastal center’s disentanglement program is highlyregarded, and we are confident that in the long term we will resolvethe problem. Unfortunately, the budget will not get resolved until sometime next year. Meanwhile, we need to throw out a lifeline to keep thisprogram alive.” Let’s hope they get it.

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