June 18, 2018 – New concerns are being expressed about the decline of Right Whale populations and the impacts on commercial fishing. Why are whale migration patterns changing? How can we balance the threatened right whale population against the vital needs of the fishing community? As indicated in the following short article, perhaps we ignored the signs almost 20 years ago.

The time was then, but we ignored the signs and continued unabated with coast pollution, coastal industrial development, and uncontrolled fisheries exploitation by the “big three” companies. We even toyed with the idea of exploiting Krill and marine plankton, the very foundation of ocean life.

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The decline of a tiny little bird signals sinister happenings in the Bay of Fundy and Northern Gulf of Maine.

by Art MacKay*
Atlantic Media File
Copyright © 2000

It was a magical summer day in the 70’s. Head Harbour Passage was teeming with life and seven gigantic Northern Right Whales were snorting, blowing and diving all around us while finbacks and porpoise seemed to be everywhere. The water was a soup of life and enormous patches of red identified the locations of millions of krill which were being fed upon by the whales and schools of herring and mackerel which, in their turn, were being attacked by large, sinister forms that swept up from the depths and smashed into the feeding masses of fish. On the surface, gulls, terns, cormorants and other sea birds were taking their share. Flocks of Northern Phalaropes rose by the thousands and, turning in magnificent unison, they would fly upstream to settle again in the choicest feeding places where they twirled and dipped energetically as they fed on an important little planktonic species called Calanus finmarchicus.

Phalaropes are pelagic sandpipers. They breed in the Arctic barrens and boreal forests and migrate to important open water feeding areas like Head Harbour Passage at West Isles in the western mouth of the Bay of Fundy in the northern Gulf of Maine. Like Right Whales, Calanus is their principal food and Head Harbour passage has a special strain that has attracted these beautiful little birds in numbers which, according to Austin Squires’ “The Birds of New Brunswick”, have on occasion exceeded a half million individuals. Some have estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the entire phalarope population visit this area during the summer. They are now all but gone and no one seems to have noticed.

What happened to cause these important members of our Fundy ecosystem to move on or die off? Dick Brown, a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist with a speciality in marine birds, may have had the answer. Some years ago, his initial studies suggested that something strange, but lethal, was happening. The phalaropes, he claimed, were unable to feed on their principal food Calanus,
even though this creature was present in the millions. For some reason, they were not coming to the surface of the water where they could be fed upon by the foraging phalaropes … they were staying several “beak-lengths” away.

Unfortunately, Dick passed on before he could follow up on his observations and the work seems to have been dropped by CWS.

What has caused this dramatic decline in Northern Phalaropes? Is the decline in Fundy salmon, Right Whales and other marine creatures tied to this same phenomenon or is it local in extent?

Aquaculture immediately spring to mind as a cause. Certainly oil slicks from these sites blanket the surface of the water in some areas; particularly in August when the largest numbers of salmon are being fed enormous quantities of food as they are fattened for the fall market. The oil slicks can be seen from the air and represent a major change in the surface water chemistry. More particularly,
the decline in the phalarope population corresponds with the last 15 years or so of the industry development. Are the Calanus reacting to these oils on the surface by moving downward away from the irritant and, consequently, removing
themselves from foraging phalaropes?

Perhaps changes in solar radiation have caused this disaster. Perhaps it is a complex of surface-borne pollution from our towns, mills, fish factories and aquaculture sites. Perhaps there has been some sort of phalarope disease?

Whatever the reason, it’s time for someone else to follow up on Dick Brown’s work.. Something serious has been happening in the Bay of Fundy and we need answers if we are to protect this valuable resource for the future.

We ignore the passing of this “canary” at our peril!

*Art MacKay,
Bocabec, N.B. Canada E5B 3J4
© Art MacKay, 2000, All rights reserved. Opinions expressed are those of the author .

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