The right language guide to help whales

A guide widely used by Alaska fishermen to help them avoid the world’s most endangered whale will soon be available in Russian.

About 2,000 copies of the guide, already available in English, should be available in Russian within two months, said David Benton, executive director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents about 80 percent of commercial fishing and crabbing interests in Alaska.

There once were more than 10,000 right whales in the North Pacific but the whales were hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800s. Because they were easy to harpoon and floated when dead, they became known as the “right” whale to kill, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is helping publish the guide.

North Pacific right whales share the Bering Sea with the largest commercial fishery in the U.S. Fewer than 100 whales are believed to be swimming off the coasts of Alaska and Russia. They have been protected by international law since 1934 but have not recovered.

The whales are slow-moving and feed near the surface. They have little instinct to avoid ships and when encountering obstacles, they tend to roll, increasing the chance of becoming entangled in fishing gear.

The hope is that fishermen on the other side of the Bering Sea will use the guide to avoid the whales, perhaps increasing their chances of not going extinct.

Thorn Smith, an alliance board member who helped create the guide, said international cooperation is needed to protect the whales over their entire range.

“While there’s no history of right whale strikes or other conflicts with our fishermen, we all want to leave these endangered species alone and this guide has helped on our side of the Bering Sea,” Smith said. “Now that it’s being translated into Russian, our comrades on the opposite shore will have the same information on how to avoid them and that translates into better protection of right whales.”

The two-page laminated guide, designed to be placed on a ship’s bridge for easy reference, already has been distributed to thousands of commercial U.S. fishermen. It includes a map of all known sightings of the right whale and photos of how to identify it from the humpback and gray whale.

The guide also instructs fishermen on what to do if they encounter a right whale. Recommendations include taking the ship’s fishing gear out of the water, leaving the area slowly and reporting the sighting.

In the 1960s, a Soviet whaling fleet illegally harvested an estimated 300 to 400 right whales in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea in what was thought to be the final blow to the species.

That fortunately has not proven to be the case, said Brent Plater, San Francisco Bay area director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued six years ago to get critical habitat designated for the whales.

“If we lose the right whale from the Bering Sea, we lose an entire species,” Plater said Friday. “The right whale needs all the help it can get.”