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Battle for Survival: The Plight of North Atlantic Right Whales.

Finding a North Atlantic right whale from the air is a little like searching for a needle in a haystack. Once sighted, however, a right whale is easily distinguishable from other large whales by its characteristic V-shaped blow, long arching mouth, broad back with no dorsal fin, and slow movements.

"Knowing their numbers are so low, it's always exciting when we are able to document a North Atlantic right whale," says Kate Lomac-MacNair, project manager and co-lead observer at Smultea Environmental Sciences, a subcontractor for DEC's large whale aerial survey. A truly majestic animal, the species has become a poster child for the uphill battle against biodiversity loss.

Recently, the story of the plight of North Atlantic right whales has been circulating in newspapers, social media, and television news stories. Beginning last January, these gentle giants have been found dead at an alarming rate. Nineteen whales, about 4% of the remaining population, have been killed by ship strikes, entanglements, or other causes. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada, 12 whales were killed from June through September alone, and 7 were found dead in the United States. There are now only an estimated 430 North Atlantic right whales left. Every year, scientists track them, count them, and estimate their population size, which has been declining during the past decade. A total of 5 calves were born in 2017, but with an average of 17 calves produced per year for the past couple of decades, the lack of any calves this year is cause for added concern.

The North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, weighs approximately 70 tons and averages 50 feet in length.

They are about 14-feet long when born and typically live for 70 years, sometimes longer. They are one of fifteen species of baleen whales--known as mysticetes--which filter feed small prey items like fish and plankton like copepods--a right whale's favorite meal. The whales swim with their mouths open just under the surface of the water through huge patches of copepods, catching the tiny, two- millimeter crustaceans in their baleen (large plates of keratin in the upper jaw) as the water runs through it, much like running a strainer through a pot of rice. Right whales communicate using low frequency sounds--typically groans and pulses--that travel for hundreds of miles through the ocean. Their calls are highly recognizable.

North Atlantic right whales differ from their North Pacific and South Pacific counterparts, considered separate species, primarily based on geographic location. Traditionally, North Atlantic right whale distribution was very predictable: winter in the warm waters of the south, summer in the cold productive waters of the north. Females were commonly found on the calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida during the winter, and all age classes met off the coasts of New England and Canada in the summer to feed. Recently, however, there has been a shift in distribution. Right whales are not as common in these places as they once were.

Right whales got their name because they were the "right" whale to hunt: they are slow, come close to shore, and float when they are dead. Humans became so good at killing them, and whales in general, that their numbers dramatically decreased, resulting in an effort to conserve populations through an international whaling moratorium. For right whales, this protection came into effect when hunting them was banned in 1937. The shift away from products containing whale oil and blubber also worked in their favor.

But even after their exploitation ended, North Atlantic right whales were still in danger. In 1990, the population was hovering somewhere around 250 individuals, still recovering from near annihilation by whalers. Thanks to environmental laws and the moratorium, the population was on the rise until 2010.

Today, ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are the biggest threats to this whale's survival. In fact, 80 percent of right whale deaths are human-caused. Eighty-three percent of right whales will be entangled at least once in their lifetime, and around 50 percent of those individuals will be entangled again, some as many as seven times. Whales that get entangled in fishing gear--particularly pregnant, nursing, or reproductive-age females--get stressed, making it harder to survive and reproduce, even if they get disentangled. As an example, following the high number of deaths, and resulting biological stress in 2017, there were zero calves during this year's 2018 calving season, which ended in March.

Adult female North Atlantic right whales are also dying sooner, experiencing almost double the calving interval, and producing their first calf later in life, at around 10 years old. Today, there are only 100 breeding females estimated to be living. While shipping and fishing have tangible impacts on right whales, the largely immeasurable effect of cumulative impacts is also taking its toll. The whales contend with a very busy ocean, facing pollution in the form of noise, debris, and chemicals, shifting food distributions as a result of climate change, and effects of possible oil and gas exploration. The best estimate from the scientific community that has been studying these whales for decades is that the current decline, if unchecked, will end in extinction by 2040.

North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1970. They are also protected under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because of the high number of mortalities last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)-the federal agency responsible for managing marine mammals like whales--declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) in August 2017. This declaration bolsters the investigation of the cause of death and any management actions needed. Critical habitat was already designated under the ESA, and expanded in 2016. When right whales are typically in the area, seasonal speed restrictions are employed around large ports on the East Coast to decrease the number of ship strikes. When a significant number of right whales is seen in a specific area for a continual time, NOAA will designate Dynamic Management Areas, wherein mariners are encouraged to avoid these areas or reduce speeds to 10 knots or less.

In 1996, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team was established to bring stakeholders--including state and federal entities, non-governmental organizations, fishing associations, and scientists--together to address the topic of fishing gear entanglements. Given the recent mortalities, counterparts in Canada joined the discussion to work together to prevent further deaths.

Despite their large size, whales can be hard to track and study, especially given the vastness of the ocean. Locally, whales occur in the New York Bight, an area of more than 12,000 square miles. Since whales are only at the surface a small percentage of their lives, a plane could be right over one that is deep in the water column and never know it. For noise-dependent surveys, such as passive acoustics, an animal has to be vocalizing.

No survey method is perfect, but the combination of methods can help fill in those availability gaps and limitations.

Recognizing the need for better data on large whales, DEC commenced the New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program last year. The program was created to employ both visual and acoustic data collection over a three-year period via monthly aerial surveys and a year-round passive acoustic survey. Data is being collected on six priority large whale species: fin, blue, sperm, sei, humpback, and North Atlantic right whale.

The aerial survey flies 15 line transects essentially perpendicular to the southern coast of Long Island out to the continental shelf break--approximately 110 nautical miles. Typically, the survey takes two to three days to complete, with two observers, two pilots, a still camera, and a video camera onboard. The passive acoustic survey uses 15 acoustic receivers placed adjacent to the Nantucket and Hudson Canyon shipping lanes. The receivers record data year-round and are swapped for downloading every four months.

During the first year of aerial surveys (March 2017 to February 2018), right whales were sighted in five of the twelve months. Researchers recorded eight sightings of 13 individuals; the highest sighting rate occurred in spring. This year has followed the same trend, with right whale sightings in March and April. Individual whales seen in March, January, and February in year one were confirmed by the New England Aquarium in Boston, which manages the right whale catalog. Each right whale has its own unique pattern of callosities--patches of white whale lice--on top of its head. Visual surveys, like DEC's aerial surveys, photograph these patterns and use them to match individuals in the photo-identification database.

The two whales seen in March 2017 were identified as Palmetto and #3020. Palmetto is a reproductive female first sighted in 1989, making her at least 28 years old. She's had four calves and has a large scar on the left side of her head. #3020 is also a reproductive female. She was first sighted in 2000 and has had two calves. A whale spotted in January 2018 was identified as #2160. It is of unknown gender, but has major scars on its peduncle, or tail stock, making this whale easy to identify.

Our sighting was only the second sighting of this whale with those scars; the first was recorded in 2013. The whale spotted in February 2018 is essentially unknown, but is likely two to three years old. This sighting might be the first recording of this individual, highlighting the importance of quality data collection for North Atlantic right whales.

Saving the North Atlantic right whale is a daunting task, but you can help. Small everyday actions can make a big difference if enough people do them. You can opt for reusable items, recycle everything you can, participate in local beach clean-ups, and support local and national conservation groups through volunteering time and/or donations. Stranding and disentanglement organizations on the East Coast are very busy responding to reports of right whales, and always looking for a little extra help.

When asked about the hope she feels for the future, Kate said, "Locating these endangered animals in their offshore habitat makes the long hours in a small airplane, scanning miles and miles of endless ocean, meaningful. This is why I became a marine biologist: to contribute something that makes a difference and conserves biodiversity."

Hopefully, getting the word out about the plight of the North Atlantic right whale will raise awareness and save this important species. With the unwavering dedication of countless individuals across decades of time, this whale's story is far from over.


In 2007, a shift in shipping lanes off the coast of Massachusetts helped ships avoid collisions with right whales. Researchers looking at the locations of right whale sightings in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary discovered that moving the shipping lanes slightly north would avoid highly concentrated whale areas. After the adjustment was made, the ship strike risk for whales in this area was reduced by 81 percent.

Following this action, in January 2008, a network of ten acoustic buoys was added along the 55 miles of shipping lanes. With a listening radius of five nautical miles each, these buoys listen for right whale vocalizations and relay them on to the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, which then verifies the acoustic recording and confirms right whale presence at that buoy. Ships are then notified. This process can take as little as 20 minutes, and allows captains to slow to 10 knots to avoid collisions.

Meghan Rickard is a marine biologist with the New York Natural Heritage Program & DEC'S Division of Marine Resources in East Setauket.

Caption: North Atlantic right whale female and calf
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Author:Rickard, Meghan
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Oct 1, 2018

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