Veterinary scientist advocates for endangered whales

Moore's research shines light on plight of North Atlantic right whales
Published on October 09, 2019

As a veterinary scientist, Dr. Michael Moore sees himself as an "objective advocate" for the marine mammals he's made a career of studying.

"The veterinarian is, by training and expectation, an advocate for their patient, whereas a scientist is more of an objective assessor looking at the factors involved and what the results are. The two (roles) together are very powerful because it allows you to be something of an objective advocate," he explained.

Dr. Moore has worked for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts since 1986, first as a graduate student and now as a senior scientist and director of its Marine Mammal Center. His research on the health and welfare aspects of human interactions with marine mammals—namely shipping and fishing—have shone a much-needed spotlight on a previously unrecognized animal welfare crisis.

North Atlantic right whale
Dr. Michael Moore has spent his career educating the public about the plight of the North Atlantic right whale, one of the world's most endangered large whale species. (Photos courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Explosive harpoons and entanglements

He recalled becoming interested in marine mammals as a preveterinary student at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom during the early '80s. "The lecturers kept on harping back to marine mammals as the exception to every rule. From an evolutionary point of view, they are fascinating, like how a sperm whale holds its breath for an hour. That's how I became curious about them," Dr. Moore said.

Later, after completing his veterinary degree at the university, Dr. Moore's first job was as an observer for the International Whaling Commission on an Icelandic whale catcher in the Denmark Strait to investigate the killing efficiency of explosive harpoons.

If an entangled whale were part of the urban landscape, like dying on the sidewalk in New York or Boston, it would be a very different story when that nice pink lobster shows up on your table. Then you couldn't ignore the risks associated with how it got there."

Dr. Michael Moore, senior scientist and director, Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

"There was and is a perception that explosive harpoons are not a particularly humane thing to use," Dr. Moore said. "But having been trained in meat inspection and observing an abattoir (slaughterhouse) at work, I had a certain understanding of what it takes to kill an animal efficiently. I came away from that Icelandic ship with a pretty strong sense of the efficiency of a 90-millimeter-caliber cannon with an explosive grenade harpoon on it."

Explosive harpoons are still problematic, Dr. Moore noted, particularly because a whale shot with one may take as long as 20 minutes to die. Compared with human interactions that unintentionally kill whales, however, the harpoons are more humane. "If you kill a whale by wrapping rope around it, you may drown it; in which case, it's going to take about an hour, because they can hold their breath for that long. Or it's going to take months or years if you're going to strangle them slowly, stop their feeding, constrict their appendages, and cause chronic infection and stress.

"When I started looking at some of these cases (of whale deaths) we were seeing on the beach, I thought back to the ongoing criticism of Icelandic, Norwegian, and Japanese whalers and thought, 'Wait a minute, there's some serious hypocrisy going on here.'"

A clearer path

Necropsies by many people, including Dr. Moore, of endangered North Atlantic right whales and other species revealed that a large majority of whale deaths are caused by fishing line entanglements and vessel strikes. These findings, along with diverse, sustained public advocacy, resulted in fishing regulations by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada, and the International Maritime Organization changing the path of shipping lanes within the right whale's habitat.

Dr. Moore releasing a drone
Dr. Michael Moore releases a drone during a whale research expedition.

Dr. Moore's research brought to light the suffering whales and dolphins experience from entanglement-inflicted wounds such as amputations, lacerations, and infections. As such, he is a proponent of ropeless fishing, an admittedly expensive alternative to the buoy lines currently in use that use wireless modems to mark lobster traps on the sea floor.

"If only the average consumer of a lobster roll knew the risks of the gear being used for their culinary interest," Dr. Moore said. "'Out of sight, out of mind' is definitely a challenge we deal with. Nobody wants to hear it because they don't really understand the consequences.

"If an entangled whale were part of the urban landscape, like dying on the sidewalk in New York or Boston, it would be a very different story when that nice pink lobster shows up on your table. Then you couldn't ignore the risks associated with how it got there."

Dr. Moore helped develop the first whale sedation system to reduce boat avoidance by fatally entangled whales so rescue teams can more safely free them. The ballistic system is capable of administering 60 mL of highly concentrated sedative, in 20 mL boluses, to the muscle of a swimming whale through about 8 inches of blubber from a moving vessel 15 meters away. The system was used successfully in 2007 to deliver antibiotics to two humpback whales and in 2009 and 2011 with entangled North Atlantic right whales that were sedated so lines could be removed. The right whales both subsequently died of their entanglement wounds, but Dr. Moore said the principle of veterinary intervention at sea was established.

Dr. Craig Harms, a professor of aquatic animal medicine at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, called the whale sedation system "a remarkable technological success" for improving the health and welfare of entangled whales. "The prospects of attempting to sedate a swimming 20,000- to 40,000-kilogram animal are daunting," Dr. Harms said. "Dr. Moore and his collaborators … ultimately succeeded in sedating an entangled right whale that could not otherwise be approached, making disentanglement possible."