North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR), Permit 15488

Todd, professor of marine mammalogy and COA’s Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences, says that by bringing students to this important conference each year, he hopes to give them first-hand experience in navigating the complex world of whale conservation.

“In many ways,” says Todd, “the North-Atlantic right whale is a poster child for all conservation efforts of whales, because it’s about figuring out ways to manage human activity in the presence of these animals and make it as minimally conflicting as possible.”

A critically endangered species

One of the most endangered of all marine mammals, the North Atlantic right whale currently hovers at a population of around 500. The species has a long history of human exploitation; its name comes from its reputation as the “right whale” to hunt. Though killing this massive mammal was outlawed in the 1930s, human-induced mortality has continued through ship strikes, fishing gear entanglements, and pollution. Without active management efforts, it is likely to become extinct, experts say.

By bringing together diverse perspectives, the North-Atlantic Right Whale Consortium strives to generate successful strategies and policies to maximize the survival of this highly vulnerable species. And while the species remains critically endangered, some conservations measures are beginning to bear fruit, says Todd, who is also the director of Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic’s marine mammal research group.

Dr. Sean ToddDr. Sean Todd“It’s not all bad news,” Todd continued. “When I first got here, [the population] was around 350 individuals. I suppose one could say that in less than 20 years it’s grown a little bit – but that growth rate is substantially lower than for similar species in the southern hemisphere.”

During those two decades, dialogue about best fishing practices to minimize entanglements has grown. Because right whales tend to swim near the surface of the water and move slowly, they are particularly prone to getting caught in fishing nets which can cut into the whales’ skin, causing slow deaths. The Consortium has focused much of their effort into working with the fishing industry to design whale-safe gear that is more easily detected and can snap if a whale becomes entangled, Todd says.

“We spend a lot of time discussing innovations, new research, and new technologies that might help us increase these animals’ numbers,” says Todd, who spent 10 years working as part of a whale disentanglement team in Newfoundland prior to his time at COA.

Common goals, conflicting ideas

Though all conference participants share a common goal, conflicts arise constantly as divergent perspectives are contributed. These, Todd says, are one of the prime benefits for students attending the conference.

“[The diversity of opinion] is, for me, something I really celebrate, something I really want the students to observe and appreciate. The bottom line is that we’re all there because we want to see this animal persist… but each group comes to the table with a slightly different story and a slightly different mandate. That richness and diversity is both a benefit and a huge challenge,” Todd says. “It’s quite frequent that there will be tension at the conference… It’s useful to the students to understand that these people come to this conference with different values, and [to think about ways to] compromise between those different values. Fishermen, for example, are acutely concerned about their rights to fish. However, I remain convinced there is a way to bring fishermen into the problem and promote stewardship. No one, not academics, advocates, or fishermen, wants to see this species go extinct.”

Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station on Mount Desert Rock.Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station on Mount Desert Rock. Credit: Courtesy of The College of the Atlantic ArchivesA class in the field

By this point in the Marine Mammal Biology Field Studies course, students are fairly familiar with the challenges and rewards of collaboration.

“Typically, this is the final experience in a class where the students have really bonded as a team. It’s a very rewarding final activity, because they’ve been learning about whales and science all this time, and then they finally get to see how all of this is applied in a professional setting,” says Todd.

Over the summer, the group spends two weeks together at the Mount Desert Rock research station, nearly 30 miles offshore. In this remote and often intense environment, challenges can range from the simplistic (turning the 11th day’s box of pasta into something original and appetizing), to the personal (facing cold, storms, and seasickness), to the complex – testing behavioral research hypotheses on a resident population of grey and harbor seals. Students must collaborate on research projects as a team, which, like living on a remote island, is not as easy as many of them expect.

“In a safe but challenging way, I try to expose them to the lifestyle of the field scientist,” Todd says. “A lot of bonding happens over that, and I’m seeing really good social and academic links between these people now.”

A pure love of whales

Though his role has shifted over the years from a focus on research to an emphasis on education, Todd’s deep-rooted belief in the importance of whale conservation has remained constant.

“On one level, I care as a human on an ethical basis that these whales are in this position because of what we did to them, and… I think that we’re responsible for trying to do something about that,” says Todd. “On a completely, unabashedly aesthetic level… right whales are fascinating creatures. When a right whale blows, it’s a beautiful deep sonorous blow, and it kind of smells musty, and they’re just huge… absolutely massive. They seem enigmatic and curious. They’re also really ugly! But… there’s beauty in that ugliness too. There’s something about right whales specifically that is very appealing.”

The annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium is being held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from November 4-5, 2015.