Moira Brown, a New England Aquarium and Canadian Whale Institute whale scientist and researcher, spearheaded a complex, multi-year effort to accumulate the scientific data to make the case and then built an unlikely coalition of stakeholders among shippers, fishermen, environmentalists and government officials at the local, provincial, federal and international levels to implement the change. It was the first time ever globally that shipping lanes had been changed to protect an endangered species.
North Atlantic right whales are the most endangered large whale in the Atlantic. Each year from August to October, they feed on animal plankton in the waters of the Bay of Fundy. The waters are particularly popular among mother and calf pairs. The waters are also shared with large ships that are moving in and out of the busy port of St. John. Right whales are often surface feeders and have a long history of human-caused mortality due to vessel strikes. Deaths of mature females or calves is particularly deleterious to the small population.
Brown who has been studying right whales there for years out of the New England Aquarium’s summer field station in nearby Lubec, Maine realized that the designated shipping lanes at the time overlapped significantly with some of the most popular feeding areas. She and her colleagues spent years charting whale sighting data and then suggested an alternative route that would minimize impact on the shipping industry. She then went about firming support among the local and regional users on the water and then pushing the proposal through the governmental bodies all the way to the International Maritime Organization that supervises global shipping. When the shipping lane changes went into effect, that reduced the likelihood of a right whale and vessel strike in the Bay of Fundy by over 90 percent. This Bay of Fundy conservation action inspired shipping lane changes entering Boston that traversed a whale sanctuary and popular whale watch destination.
Beyond her research credentials and a career spent studying marine mammals in Canada and the U.S., Brown’s perseverance and affability made her the right person to pursue this effort. She is well known for her unassuming and often humorous ability to speak effectively with fishermen, oil company executives, school kids, or ship captains.