Only one North Atlantic right whale was spotted in the Gulf of Maine this fall by biologists who are tracking the species.
Rather than the dozens that are sometimes seen in the gulf in November, only a single right whale was seen during aerial surveys this fall, said Tim Cole, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But the low count shouldn’t be interpreted as a bleak report on the status of the species, said spokesmen for NOAA, the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., the New England Aquarium and other whale-monitoring organizations.
While right whales are very rare, with only about 500 remaining in the North Atlantic Basin, they range over a huge area and simply may be eluding scientists, the researchers said.
Wherever the whales have gone, marine biologists are confident they have not disappeared. “There’s no fear of them being dead,” Cole said.
Instead, it appears that conditions in the ocean have changed, spurring right whales to seek food somewhere other than their usual feeding spots in the Gulf of Maine.
Finding a single whale during a spring count is not unprecedented, but the number this year is one of the lowest ever in a fall aerial survey.
“November is usually a good time to find right whales in the Gulf of Maine,” Cole said. “Typically, the gulf is very important to them.”
At this time of the year, the 40- to 50-foot, 70-ton whales with distinctive white head markings are likely to be seen anywhere in the Bay of Fundy and along Maine’s coast.
This year, some apparently have moved earlier than usual to Cape Cod Bay and the outer shores of Cape Cod, an integral part of their yearly movements, said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a marine biologist with the Center for Coastal Studies, which has been monitoring right whales continuously for 30 years.
Right whales generally are seen off Cape Cod from February to April, but were seen in the bay this year as early as Oct. 20, he said. Since then, “numbers of whales have been seen here intermittently.”
Cole said he was surprised to hear that the whales had been seen off Cape Cod.
Mayo said the sightings of several whales doesn’t indicate a large shift to the south.
Marine biologists speculate that ocean conditions have changed in the parts of the North Atlantic Basin – an area including the North Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico – where right whales have typically found adequate food at this time of year.
Cole said the whales probably have gone out into deeper, colder waters or to other areas where copepods – tiny crustaceans that feed on microscopic plankton and phytoplankton, at the base of the food chain – are thriving.
But those micro-organisms and nutrients have been down dramatically this year, he said. The phenomenon has been linked to warmer water temperatures, increased carbon dioxide and other changes that many scientists believe are connected to human-induced climate change.
“That change (in the whales’ habitat) could be the result of climate change,” Mayo said. “I don’t think that conjecture is wild. I think it’s logical.”
The right whales’ movements are critically important to Maine fisheries, animal advocates, conservationists and commercial interests in New England.
“The right whale story drives a lot of coastal conservation and development now … because they’re so close to extinction,” said Mayo.
Fixed fishing gear, especially for lobstering, has been a problem for right whales, which get entangled, injured, trapped or even killed, he said, adding that the fate of the species is watched closely.
Federal funding cuts and last month’s government shutdown also are also a potential factor in the single sighting this fall, because budget cuts resulted in fewer survey flights than usual.
Mayo said funding cuts have reduced resources for right whale monitoring and research at the Center for Coastal Studies by about half, and Cole said NOAA’s right-whale work has been cut by a third.
Marine researchers said the reductions have less obvious effects, too, cutting into the time they have for study and research because those hours must go into proposals for a diminishing pool of grant funding.
If ocean conditions shift again and improve for the whales, the giant marine mammals can be expected to move back or find even better habitat, scientists said.
Right whales are capable of swimming 40 mph almost indefinitely, said Cole, and they have no difficulty swimming great distances in search of food or more hospitable conditions.
Right whale populations will be watched closely off Cape Cod this winter, particularly after Jan. 1, when the Center for Coastal Studies conducts its own aerial counts, Mayo said.
Because the center’s right-whale tracking program off Cape Cod doesn’t begin until January, the whale counts and sightings there this fall are the product of casual observations, not a formal study.
But the early arrival of whales, in higher numbers, continues a trend that was first observed a few years ago, Mayo said. “In fact, this has been the mother lode of right whales in the last three years,” he said.
EARLY ARRIVAL AT CAPE COD
In the past, right whales could be seen in the northeast corner of Cape Cod Bay during winter and early spring, said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston. But their winter- to early spring-season begins earlier and is therefore longer, he said. At the other end of the season, however, the whales don’t appear to be lingering longer.
“Right whales have different feeding areas at different times of year,” LaCasse said. Their year-round habitat extends from the Canadian Maritimes to southern New England, but the whales move in search of food.
Their whereabouts, regardless of the time of year, are likely tied primarily to food and the conditions of the ecosystem in which they thrive, marine scientists said.
“These whales are grazers,” said Mayo. “It’s a moving feast, quite literally, for these animals. Wherever they are, I guarantee that they’re sitting on a pile of food.”
All of the monitoring produces only a “tiny slice” of the whole picture, Mayo said.
“Within those tiny slices there does seem to be a change,” he said. “But the processes and movements are very poorly understood. We can’t really say what is going on. There are lots of ways to interpret this. … It’s the problem of searching for a rare animal in a huge ecosystem.”
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