November 30, 2013

Fewer right whales seen, counted in Gulf of Maine

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Only one North Atlantic right whale was spotted in the Gulf of Maine this fall by biologists who are tracking the species.

click image to enlarge

In this June 2001 file photo, researchers attempt to inject a North Atlantic right whale with a sedative in an effort to remove a commercial fishing line from the whale’s jaw. Only one North Atlantic right whale was spotted in the Gulf of Maine this fall by biologists who are tracking the species, an unusually low number.

AP Photo/Center for Coastal Studies

INTERACTIVE MAP

CLICK HERE for NOAA’s interactive North Atlantic Right Whale Sightings Map. Choose a month and click “map” to view whale sighting patterns.

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.

CHANGING OCEANS

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.

CHANGING CLIMATE

“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.

(Continued on page 2)

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