For immediate release
Canada-U.S. team looks to genomics
to guide North Atlantic right whale conservation
July 22, 2021- Halifax, N.S.
The number of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales continues to be buffeted by high mortality rates from vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, and by a low rate of reproduction. There is now estimated to be fewer than 400 individuals left, including less than 100 breeding females. With inbreeding suspected as a major factor in the species’ low birth rate, a Canadian-U.S. team of scientists is launching a research project to assess how genetic factors are hampering the right whale’s recovery.
Conservation Genomics of the Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale is a $6 million, four-year international collaboration with Genome Atlantic and Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax, N.S., and with the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass. Other collaborators include Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Whale Institute in Canada, along with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Duke University, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, all in the United States.
This landmark project was one of eight announced today by the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. The projects are the latest to attain funding through Genome Canada’s Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP) Competition.
Managed by Genome Atlantic, the project is co-led by Dr. Timothy Frasier, Saint Mary’s University, who has been doing genetic analysis of the right whale for more than 20 years; and by Philip Hamilton, a leading expert on right whale biology and Senior Scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium in Boston.
The Genome Atlantic project will look at genetic factors that could explain why the reproductive rate of North Atlantic right whales is three times lower than their known potential. The team also plans to assess if, and to what degree, non-lethal encounters with vessels and fishing gear change the expression of genes in a manner that lowers the long-term health and reproduction of individuals, and to evaluate the ramifications for conservation of the species. The team will combine genomics– the study of genes and their functions–with long-term field data on North Atlantic right whales and their reproductive histories.
Recommendations, based on the project findings, will be made to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada and to the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in the U.S. on right whale-related recovery expectations, goals and conservation priorities. The results could have implications for marine management policies, practices and conservation plans. The two government entities are charged with managing and conserving the North Atlantic right whale population within their respective jurisdictions. Seasonal migrations, which send a portion of the right whale population through Canadian and American waters, have made recovery of the species a joint concern.
Apart from the multi-million-dollar whale watching industry that has grown around them, whales play a vital role in stabilizing marine ecosystems by helping to regulate a wide spectrum of marine organisms with their presence. The nitrogen-laden fecal matter they release when they rise to the ocean’s surface to defecate, for instance, is known to stimulate plankton growth and other microorganisms that form the foundation of the oceanic food chain, critical to the existence of marine life and for the maintenance of the fishing industry.
Besides Genome Canada funding, the international research project will receive support from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Research Nova Scotia in Canada, and from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the US National Marine Fisheries Service, and the New England Aquarium in the United States.
The project is expected to start between July and September this year.