November 30, 2013

Fewer right whales seen, counted in Gulf of Maine

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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.

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.”

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

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