The Tybee Marine Science Center, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and Hit Play Productions co-hosted the Georgia premiere of Nadine Paquenza’s 2021 documentary “Last of the Right Whales” on Tuesday, July 12 at the Lucas Theater for the Arts.
The documentary follows the migration of North American right whales and the individuals who have dedicated themselves to protecting the world’s most endangered large whale species.
The dangers facing right whales
According to The Georgia Conservancy, the only known right whale calving grounds are off the coast of Georgia and northern Florida.
With that in mind, “The Last of the Right Whales” serves to remind viewers of one of the world’s rarest and most endangered species.
After centuries of hunting, North American right whale populations are on the brink.
Currently, North American right whales are dying faster than they can reproduce.
According to NOAA Fisheries, fewer than 350 of these whales remain and fewer than 100 breeding females.
Although hunting of these whales has been banned, their numbers continue to decline due to entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, climate change and ocean noise which affects the species’ ability to communicate and find food.
Experts predict that within the next 20 years, Georgia’s aquatic mammal could be functionally extinct.
Cathay Sakas, the former education coordinator at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary on Skidaway Island in Savannah, said fishing gear, primarily trap ropes, poses a major threat to the right whale population. .
Compared to other threats whales face, fishing entanglements pose a significant risk to right whales.
NOAA Fisheries and its partners estimate that 85% of North American right whale populations have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.
“Entanglement in fishing gear is a whole different beast. When a whale becomes entangled in fishing gear, it can take years before it dies,” Sakas explained.
Along with entanglements, ship strikes are also a major threat to right whales. The species’ migration patterns overlap several Atlantic ports and shipping lanes, which can result in collisions between ships and right whales and cause serious injury that can be fatal.
Sakas also explained that experts are noticing a shift in ocean currents attributed to climate change, which is causing volatility in calving grounds off the Georgia coast.
This change in current displaces copepods, which are small crustaceans that happen to be the right whale’s primary food source, and reduces their abundance. As a result, right whales are forced to seek out prey in areas that are less protected from ship strikes and entanglements.
In ‘Last of the Right Whales’, experts have identified potential solutions and ways to lessen our impact on the species.
One method that was highlighted in the documentary was the use of ropeless gear that can minimize entanglement. Examples of this ropeless craft can be seen on the Georgia coast.
Kim Sawicki, president of Sustainable Seas Technology inc, has worked with Georgian fishermen to develop and test wireless fishing gear that gives commercial fishermen access to black bass.
Sawicki explained that the fishery she works with was able to acquire an exempt fishing license that allows them to fish with ropeless gear while whales are nearby.
“We now have 15,000 square nautical miles of fishing area available for the guys using all this gear. There are 12 different types there now. Over the next 10 years, we’ll probably see some new ones, which is cool,” Sawicki said.
The use of ropeless fishing gear has not yet been implemented on a large scale, but Sawicki’s work shows that this type of fishing gear can be used to reduce the impact on right whales of the North Atlantic.
For more information on the documentary and on North Atlantic right whales, visit lastoftherightwhales.com and noaa.gov