Shedding light on right whales

Some 25 years ago, when Moira Brown was teaching physical education at schools in Montreal’s West Island district, the idea of one day pursuing a career researching whales had not even crossed her mind. Yet, after four years in the field of education she found herself back in school: a student completing a Bachelor’s degree in renewable resources at McGill University. She went on to work as a research assistant for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) on a project concerning the history of whaling in the Arctic. In 1985 she volunteered for a New England Aquarium project to study North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy; this turned out to be the beginning of a long career dedicated to the research and conservation of this critically endangered species.

Ten years after her initial contact with whales, Moira Brown obtained a Ph.D. from Guelph University in Ontario. She then worked for three years at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She next worked for seven years as director of the Right Whale research programme at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is dedicated to the conservation of marine mammals and marine ecosystems. She has held the position of senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts since 2004.

Although Moira Brown left behind a career in physical education, her active side still shows through in her research work: she participates in every stage of the projects she is involved in, from field work to writing of publications to data analysis. She even took additional scuba training with the specific intent of recovering the vestiges of XVI Century whale bones from the harbour of Red Bay, Labrador while working on a project with Parks Canada to study the impact of Basque whaling on the decline of North Atlantic right whales. She was the driving force behind two of the most important protection measures for right whales in Canada: the first being the rerouting of a major commercial shipping lane in the Bay of Fundy, a measure adopted in 2003. The shipping route was relocated to sectors where the density of right whales was less significant. The second was the designation of the Roseway Basin in Nova Scotia as a maritime route to be avoided on a seasonal basis for ships weighing over 300 tonnes. This basin, located approximately thirty nautical miles south of Nova Scotia’s Cape Sable Island , is one of only two known regions in Canadian waters where numerous North Atlantic right whales congregate on a seasonal basis for reproduction and feeding. These two conservation measures were sanctioned by the International Maritime Organization, in addition to receiving the Gulf of Maine Visionary Award (2002), the Canadian Environment Award (2003), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (2006) and the Environmental Stewardship Award Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership (2009). These measures are the results of a process spanning several years and bringing together actors from across the merchant shipping sector.

Over the years, Moira Brown has developed a real passion for North Atlantic right whales and is interested in all aspects of their history and biology. Right whales have been sighted every year off Percé since the mid-1990s. Females have even been observed with calves in this area. Moira Brown and other researchers in the St. Lawrence are curious about the role the St. Lawrence plays in the lives of these endangered whales.