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Conservation Genomics of the Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale

Status: 
Active
Competition: 
2020 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition: Genomic Solutions for Natural Resources and the Environment
Sector: 
Environment
Genome Centre(s):
Genome Atlantic
Project Leader(s):
Timothy R. Frasier (Saint Mary's University), Philip K. Hamilton (New England Aquarium)
GE3LS: 
Yes
Fiscal Year Project Launched: 
2021-2022
Project Description: 

The North Atlantic right whale is the world’s most endangered large whale with fewer than 400 individuals remaining. This species has not recovered from whaling in the same way as other exploited species and has been in decline for the past 10 years. This lack of recovery has been attributed to two main factors: (1) a high rate of anthropogenic mortality from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, and (2) a reproductive rate that is three times lower than their known potential.

To fulfil their mandate of conserving North Atlantic right whales, governing bodies such as the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the U.S. require information on what factors are limiting recovery and what the implications are for policy and conservation planning.

Although some limiting factors have been identified, others have not—such as what factors are compromising reproduction. Even for limiting factors that have been identified, gaps remain in our understanding of the degree, and means by which, they are limiting species viability. This lack of knowledge limits the ability of DFO and NMFS to set appropriate recovery expectations and goals, and to develop effective conservation strategies. Additionally, conservation actions taken by either country also require, and/or have implications for, other industries and groups, including the shipping and fishing industries and Indigenous communities. Therefore, effective conservation, that allows for the sustainable coexistence of whales and humans, requires collaboration with all of these parties.

We will use genomic and GE3LS (genomics and its ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social aspects) data to address these issues and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of conservation strategies in both Canada and the U.S. Our objectives are to: (1) quantify the impact of inbreeding on reproductive performance and species recovery; (2) quantify the impact of sublethal entanglements and ship strikes on health and reproduction; (3) conduct network analyses of entities involved in and/or impacted by right whale research and conservation to identify gaps so that such relationships can be developed or strengthened; and (4) conduct ethnographic research into these entities to facilitate effective communications and collaborations.

These objectives will be integrated to produce two deliverables: (1) communications with governing bodies (DFO and NMFS) regarding how conservation priorities and policy should be revised based on the genomic data; and (2) communications with industries and the other entities involved to promote changes in perceptions and behaviour. This work will result in more effective and efficient conservation of this endangered species.