Monday, November 30, 2009

Right Whale Festival this Weekend

Dave Wax and Ann Butler | www.firstcoastnews.com | November 30, 2009

"JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The annual North Atlantic right whale migration is under way in the waters off the First Coast, but some fear the public doesn't know enough about the giant creatures.

Saturday, Dec. 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is holding the first annual Right Whale Festival.

It will be at the Sea Walk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The festival is designed to inform the public about the critically endangered whales (there are an estimated 350 left), and how their migration affects our area.

They spend much of the year feeding in waters off New England and Canada, and begin their migration to the warmer waters here in November to give birth and nurse their young.

Our waters, extending up to the South Carolina coast, are the only known birthing area for the North Atlantic right whale.

Those going to the festival will learn about the no-approach rule and how to avoid mother-calf pairs.

Boaters will learn what to look for in open waters to avoid collisions. Biologists specializing in right whales will be on hand to answer any questions.

There is no charge to attend, and there will be live music and kids activities, plus exhibits including arts, crafts and food.

A beach cleanup will begin at 9 a.m. in the area, and anyone wanting to help out is invited.

There will also be a silent auction running from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The music will begin at noon."

For more info: http://www.rightwhalefestival.org/

Whales to get a break this lobster season

By Natalia Real | www.fis.com | November 30, 2009

"Hundreds of fishers in southwest Nova Scotia for the first time will be proactively lowering the chances of the endangered right whales from becoming entangled in floating fishing line when lobster fishing season opens on Monday.

One of the most endangered large whales on Earth, only 400 North Atlantic right whales remain. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are their greatest threats.

Canada’s shipping lanes have already been moved to minimize contact with the whales. For the past year and a half, lobster fishers in Lobster Fishing Areas (LFA) 33 and 34 in the Bay of Fundy have collaborated with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada to develop solutions to slash entanglements.

"Fishermen developed a plan to change fishing practices in a way that demonstrates leadership, commitment to conservation and a significant first step towards reducing this threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale", said Robert Rangeley, Vice-President Atlantic Region, WWF-Canada. "It is an exciting example of collaboration and action which we hope provides a positive lesson of the benefits of integrated management for all ocean industries."

As whales swim to the waters off the southern US coast and back, lines attaching lobster traps to the ocean bottom can float and create nooses that ensnare whales and drown them or wrap around their mouths, precluding them from feeding. About 75 per cent of right whales have been observed to have scars created by fishing lines, The Canadian Press reports.

Until recently, there were no guidelines on the amount of rope that lobster fishers could use when setting their trawls or even how they set them. The new plan aims to keep rope out of whales’ path by specifying maximum rope lengths and optimal setting practices that keep ropes low and tight.

"Fishermen are often negatively portrayed when animals, particularly whales, become entangled in fishing gear", said Ashton Spinney, Industry Co-Chair of the LFA 34 Advisory Committee. "These rare and unfortunate situations are never intentional and no fisherman wants to see whales harmed."

In June, all of the Halifax port representatives in LFA 33 and 34 agreed on behalf of their fishers to adopt this first measure and take further action in the future to lower this threat as they gain more knowledge about entanglements.

"This is a great step towards minimising threats and giving right whales a chance of recovery," said Rangeley. "More work is necessary to better understand the problem and the effectiveness of solutions that will ensure recovery of this magnificent species."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Setting things right: right whales making a comeback

By Steven Stycos | The Block Island Times | November 28, 2009

"North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered of New England’s whales, are making a modest comeback, says New England Aquarium’s senior scientist Moira Brown. American efforts to protect the endangered species, however, appear to be less successful than Canada’s, Brown said last week in a speech sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey at the University of Rhode Island.

The current population of 450 North Atlantic right whales annually migrates from winter calving areas along the coast of Florida and Georgia to summer feeding areas near Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. The typical right whale is 50 to 60 feet long and weighs 60 to 70 tons.

Recovery of the species will be slow, Brown predicts, because female right whales do not give birth until they are nine years old and then only produce one calf every three years under optimal conditions. In the 1980s, the closely observed species produced about twelve calves a year, Brown says, but that dropped to just one birth in 2000. Since then, however, the whales have averaged 20 offspring a year, with a record 39 births in 2009.

“Something looks much better,” observes Brown, who is also a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute. Marine biologists have yet to pinpoint the cause of the baby boom, she adds.

In the last three years, the U.S. and Canada have acted to reduce human related whale deaths, although the impact has yet to be reflected in the whale population figures. The leading causes of whale deaths, says Brown, are ship strikes, which account for half of all right whale deaths, and entanglement in fishing gear

Unfortunately, whales’ principal food source, plankton, prefer deep water basins, which are also ideal places for shipping channels. Nevertheless, Canadian efforts to reduce ship strikes have been highly successful, according to Brown, who has worked since 1985 to protect the mammal. After ship strikes in the Bay of Fundy killed right whales in 1993, 1995 and 1997, Brown and others formed a working group with the shipping industry to address the problem. By moving shipping lanes 3.2 nautical miles southwest, the risk of vessel strikes was reduced 96 percent, Brown said. Irving Oil, whose tankers regularly cross the bay, was particularly supportive of the move, she adds.

In 2003 and 2006, a second problem area was identified as two whales were killed in collisions south of Nova Scotia. Using radio transmissions, scientists tracked ship traffic and learned that most boats avoid a key whale feeding area. Enough cross the area, however, to endanger the whales. Again working with the shipping industry, scientists established a 980-square nautical-mile voluntary conservation area endorsed by the IMO. In 2008, 70 percent of ships avoided the voluntary protection area. This year compliance rose to 80 percent, Brown reports.

U.S. efforts haven’t worked as well, says Brown. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service established seasonal low speed zones within 20 nautical miles of the East Coast to protect migrating whales. The zones, including in the Great South Channel near Cape Cod, require ships to slow to 10 knots, but Brown says compliance is a disappointing 20 percent.

Canada achieved better results, Brown says, thanks to shipping industry cooperation and international support through the IMO. The Canadian changes also increase voyage times far less than the American slow speed zones. Had Canada implemented a 10-knot zone rather than a voluntary conservation area, she states, trips would have been increased by two hours instead of 8.5 minutes.

Whales also die when entangled in fishing gear Brown says, primarily the lines used to catch lobsters and ground fish. According to studies, 75 percent of right whales have scars from entanglement and about ten percent get entangled every year. In October 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service required gill nets be designed to break when wrapped around whales. Then in April 2009, the federal agency required that weights be attached to lines that link lobster pots to prevent them from floating where feeding whales may pass.

Brown is the “driving force” behind protection measures, according to URI marine biology Professor Robert Kenney. She is also optimistic about the right whale’s future. “We have more protective measures in place than we have ever had,” Brown notes, but cautions that the results of U.S. speed limits and fishing gear provisions have yet to be measured."

Georgia welcomes right whales back

coastalcourier.com | Nov. 28, 2009

"BRUNSWICK — It is seen from a research vessel lookout — a solitary V-shaped “blow” and then something dark on the water’s surface.

Often, the return of right whales to Georgia is as subtle as that. But this winter, thanks to a new ruling, more of these imperiled whales will have a better chance at making the annual journey safely.

In October 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service established a rule that will implement speed restrictions for vessels 65 feet or longer. The restrictions call for a speed of no more than 10 knots during certain times of the year in areas designated as critical right whale habitat along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. The rule went into effect last Dec. 9. While recognized during the 2008-09 calving season, this will be the first year the rule will be enforced by law enforcement.

Biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are spreading the word about the rule while gearing up for the first sightings of these aquatic giants.
It’s not only commercial ships that cause mortal injuries to right whales. Fishing boats and other large personal recreational watercraft can also have a devastating impact on the whales, which are found as close as three miles offshore depending on water depth. Although larger recreational boats are not required to adhere to the commercial speed limit, the NOAA recommends they heed the rule as well.

North Atlantic right whales spend the summer in the cooler waters off New England and Canada. Each fall, a portion of the population returns to Georgia and Florida for the winter. Annual research done by the DNR Wildlife Resources Division and NOAA from December through March is helping wildlife biologists determine the status of these endangered animals.

Approximately 200 right whales were seen off the Georgia coast during the 2008-09 season. The total included 39 sets of mother and calf pairs — a record — as well as juveniles and single animals. Whales are counted using aerial surveys and on-the-water monitoring.

2009 marked the second straight year since 2005 that no adult mortalities were reported. There were two reported calf mortalities last season, both from unknown causes. 2008-09 also included five whales entangled in commercial fishing gear. DNR, NOAA and other partners managed to free all but one.

Researchers identify right whales by the unique pattern of callosities, or rough patches of skin, found on the whales’ heads and around their mouths. These patches are usually covered with whale lice, crustaceans that make the patches appear white. Photographs are used to tell which whale is being observed.

Right whales are baleen whales with a bow-shaped lower jaw and a head that is up to one-quarter of the body length. Calves weigh approximately 1 ton at birth and adults can reach 60 tons and almost 50 feet in length. They have no dorsal fin and breathe through two blowholes on the top of their heads. These blowholes create a unique V-shaped blow, which also helps researchers identify the whales from a distance.
Right whales were nearly driven to extinction by commercial whaling in the late 19th century. Commercial harvest was banned in 1935. Today the North Atlantic right whale is classified as endangered under U.S. and Georgia law. Right whales are listed as a priority species in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, the blueprint for conservation in the state. Georgia adopted the right whale as its state mammal in 1985.

Although not hunted now, right whales face conservation problems including ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear and habitat destruction. Even after nearly 50 years of protected status, there are only an estimated 300 to 400 North Atlantic right whales left."

Friday, November 27, 2009

'Mystery' whale dubbed Palmetto

By Bo Petersen | The Post and Courier | November 27, 2009

"The right whale Palmetto swims with a calf off Sapelo Island, Ga., earlier this year. A group of elementary school students from Sumter beat out marine scientists to choose a name for the migratory whale.

A mysterious, huge right whale with a distinct white knob on her head haunts the Lowcountry coast every few winters. That habit and the knob have given her a name: Palmetto.

It's right whale season again, the time of year when the rarest of the ocean's biggest creatures move south from their feeding grounds to calve along the Southeast from South Carolina to Florida. Pairs of whales already have been spotted off Murrells Inlet and Savannah.

"They are around," said Dianna Schulte, Wildlife Trust survey team leader. The aerial team flies out of Mount Pleasant under grants paid partly by the State Ports Authority. The team is tracking the whales and gauging the effectiveness of a controversial new federal rule that slows down large ships near the coast during the whale season.

Last year, the critically endangered species had a record breeding year in the Southeast -- 39 calves were spotted by aerial surveys. Off South Carolina, 121 individual whales were spotted, nearly a third of the known population. Fewer than 400 are known to exist, a number so perilously low that not only are the creatures critically endangered, but researchers consider every living whale vital to the survival of the species.

The New England Aquarium recently named the whale Palmetto at the urging of the students at Alice Drive Elementary School in Sumter. Last year, the students set off a minor controversy in the General Assembly when they wanted the whale named as the "state marine animal." A compromise was reached when the whale was designated the state migratory marine mammal and the bottlenose dolphin was given the "state marine mammal" designation.

While studying the whales, the students were wowed to find a photograph of Palmetto that looked like she had the state symbol tree on the back of her head. They competed for the designation against names submitted by research scientists. The aquarium catalogues individual whales and names them as a personal touch.

"It's kind of cool how she has the sign of the palmetto," said fifth-grader Demarea Edmonds. The knobs are callouses filled with tiny, crustacean "whale lice" that turn them white. These "callosities" are as individual as fingerprints.

The right whale is a 40-ton, creature as long as a basketball court is wide. Whalers nearly wiped it out in the North Atlantic in the 19th century. Deadly ship strikes, fishing line entanglements and potentially deafening noises such as sonar threaten the whales. Palmetto now carries a scar from an apparent ship strike last year.

The whales travel just offshore in areas so heavily trafficked that one conservationist describes them as essentially an urban creature. Coming within 500 yards of a right whale is illegal, and conservationists urge boaters to stay clear.

Palmetto has fascinated researchers. As a young whale, she virtually disappeared for seven years until she was spotted in the Southeast in 1996 after giving birth to her first known calf. In 2005, she was spotted rolling just behind the breakers off Pawleys Island; a newborn was with her. Last year, she was spotted with a calf off Hilton Head Island.

But in between births, she seems to disappear again."

"She's often not seen when she's up north with her calf. She's a bit of a mystery whale," said Philip Hamilton, New England Aquarium research scientist."

New lobster fishing practices to protect right whales

The Vancouver Sun | November 27, 2009

"HALIFAX — Lobster fisherman in southwest Nova Scotia will take new precautions with their traps this fishing season to help protect endangered right whales in the region, says the World Wildlife Fund of Canada.

Fisherman have been working with the WWF to develop this new strategy, whereby they attempt to keep their ropes out of the paths of whales by keeping them low and tight.

"Fishermen developed a plan to change fishing practices in a way that demonstrates leadership, commitment to conservation, and a significant first step towards reducing this threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale," said Dr. Robert Rangeley, WWF-Canada vice-president for the Atlantic region, in a news release. "It is an exciting example of collaboration and action which we hope provides a positive lesson of the benefits of integrated management for all ocean industries."

North Atlantic right whales are some of the most endangered large whales on the planet, with only 400 left, and can be harmed or killed when they get entangled in fishing gear.

The lobster fishing season officially opens on Monday."

New England Aquarium names ‘Palmetto’ whale

By Associated Press | November 27, 2009

"CHARLESTON, S.C. — A huge right whale with a distinctive white knob on her head that shows up off the South Carolina coast every few years now has an official name, "Palmetto."

The Post and Courier of Charleston reported Friday that the New England Aquarium has granted the wish of some South Carolina elementary school children to name the whale for the state’s symbolic tree.

The New England Aquarium catalogues individual whales and names them as a personal touch.

Students at Alice Drive Elementary in Sumter recommended the name "Palmetto." The students were impressed when they found a picture of the whale that looked like she had a palmetto outline on the back of her head.

Last year, 121 individual whales were spotted off South Carolina. Fewer than 400 right whales are known to exist."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

East Coast fishermen adapt lobster fishing to protect endangered whales

By Alison Auld | The Canadian Press | November 26, 2009

"HALIFAX, N.S. — One of the world's most endangered marine mammals is getting some help from a small group of eastern Canadian fishermen who are trying to reduce a major threat to the animals by controlling the amount of lethal fishing line in the water.

Lobster fishermen on the East Coast are altering the way they set lobster traps and will steer clear of rare North Atlantic right whales as they pass through the Bay of Fundy in a bid to cut the number of times they get snarled in fishing line.

Starting Monday when the lobster season opens in parts of the Bay of Fundy, hundreds of lobster harvesters will be asked to set their groundlines on the ocean floor to limit floating ropes and protect the whales against one of their two main killers.

Hubert Saulnier, a veteran fisherman in the Bay of Fundy where many of the massive mammals go to feed in the summer, said the initiative should reduce the amount of fishing line that floats above the ocean floor and ensnares the whales.

"We decided to be proactive and do studies and see what works," he said from New Minas, N.S.

"The best solution is to try to explain to fishermen what we've experienced on how to set gear properly. ... It is a way to promote the fact that we should be involved a lot more and we should be informed a lot more."

Lines that link the lobster traps on the ocean bottom can be slack and close together, creating something like a noose that can wrap around the whales as they travel to and from waters off Florida.

Fishermen in two of the bay's fishing areas have agreed to make the lines tighter and longer to try to keep them resting on the ground.

They have also been asked to shorten the vertical lines that attach the traps to a buoy and are often found to be hazardous to the whales, whose population has dwindled to only 400 since they were hunted to near extinction in the 1700s.

Bob Rangeley of the World Wildlife Fund, which worked with fishermen to develop the measures, said they could go a long way to protecting the slow-moving, 17-metre animals that are also vulnerable to ship strikes.

"It's hugely significant," he said in Halifax. "They are the most endangered whale and we do have to reduce the threat. So this is a significant first step."

It's estimated that 75 per cent of the remaining North Atlantic right whales have scars on their bodies from fishing line, which they run into as they journey from their breeding grounds off Georgia and Florida to the Bay of Fundy in June.

The ropes can cause fatal infections, drown the whale on the ocean floor or prevent them from eating properly if they wrap around the mouth.

Saulnier, who once helped pull 58 traps, eight anchors and many balloons off a humpback whale, said they decided to move ahead with the voluntary initiative after a controversial lobster gear decision in the United States.

American officials are phasing out "floating" lines and mandated expensive weighted lines, which are intended to keep the line on the sea floor.

Saulnier studied the weighted lines for the Department of Fisheries, but said they aren't suited to the bay's strong currents.

Canadian Fisheries officials have said they're not considering a ban on the floating lines, but are looking instead at alternate gear types and simple avoidance of areas where the whales have been seen.

Moira Brown, a leading right whale researcher, praised the Canadian initiative, but said it could be hard to ensure fishermen are actually complying with the goodwill measures.

"The entanglement problem is a really difficult problem," she said from the New England Aquarium in Boston.

"They're pointed in the right direction. Nobody wants to regulate this, but how do you get broad compliance? That's what you have to do to turn things around."

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved."

Right whales return to local waters

A new listening device catches a whale call

By Mary Landers | http://savannahnow.com | 2009-11-26

"North Atlantic right whales have begun their annual return to Georgia waters.

At least one whale was recorded as it vocalized Tuesday off the coast of Savannah, just three days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration activated a listening buoy there.

"It hasn't been active long, and we have our first detection," said Barb Zoodsma, NOAA Fisheries' Southeast regional office right whale recovery program coordinator. Zoodsma hopes the acoustic data eventually will help researchers better delineate when and where right whales use Georgia waters.

The highly endangered large whales, whose total population is estimated at about 300-400, come to the waters off Georgia and Florida to give birth. It's their only known calving grounds.

Aerial surveys will begin Tuesday to look for right whales off Georgia. Surveys off South Carolina have been under way since mid-November.

Last year, surveys indicated 39 calves were born. Such record good news for the species was tempered by another statistic - five whales were discovered entangled in fishing gear.

Wildlife biologist Clay George of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources assisted in trying to free the animals. In all but one case, biologists succeeded in cutting loose heavy rope that wrapped around and dug into the animals' skin. And even in the case in which marine biologists couldn't catch up to the entangled whale because its tracking buoy malfunctioned, there appears to be a happy ending.

"The buoy and 50-foot of line came loose and was recovered by the Coast Guard offshore of New Jersey in March 2009," George said. "The whale was re-sighted in the Bay of Fundy by the New England Aquarium in August and appears to be gear-free, but not all areas of the body were seen, so we won't know for sure until it's re-sighted again."

Along with entanglements, ship strikes are the main threats to the species. One to two whales each year die from being hit by ships.

To address that problem, a federal regulation went into effect last year requiring commercial ships 65 feet or longer to reduce their speed to about 12 mph in areas where the whales feed and reproduce, as well as migratory routes in between. For the Savannah area, the speed restrictions are in force within 20 nautical miles of the coast from November through April. Recreational vessels are exempt from the rule, but are asked to comply voluntarily.

North Atlantic right whales are called urban whales because they live in close proximity to cities on the East Coast. They were hunted to near extinction because their slow swimming speed and tendency to float when dead made them the "right" whale to hunt.

Last year, about 200 individual whales were sighted in and around the calving grounds. Since only a minority of those animals - 78 of them - were moms and calves, scientists are left to speculate why the other whales make the long trip from their feeding grounds off New England and Canada. Right whales don't feed in southeastern waters, George said. And 20 years ago it was primarily mothers and calves seen here. Hypotheses for the arrival of non-breeding whales range from a social benefit to attraction to water of a certain temperature.

"It's a long way to go," George said. "It makes you wonder if they don't get something out of it."

Lobster Fishermen Testing New Measures for Right Whale Conservation

WWF-Canada | Nov 26, 2009 | www.marketwire.com

"HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA--(Marketwire - Nov. 26, 2009) - Lobster fishing season opens on Monday, and for the first time fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia will be using voluntary practices to reduce the chance of endangered right whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear.

Only 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, making them one of the most endangered large whales on the planet. The biggest threat to their survival is ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

Shipping lanes in Canada have already been moved to minimize contact with the whales, and for the past year and a half, lobster fishermen in Lobster Fishing Areas (LFA) 33 and 34 have worked with WWF-Canada to develop solutions to limit the entanglement threat.

"Fishermen developed a plan to change fishing practices in a way that demonstrates leadership, commitment to conservation, and a significant first step towards reducing this threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale", said Dr. Robert Rangeley, Vice-President Atlantic Region, WWF-Canada. "It is an exciting example of collaboration and action which we hope provides a positive lesson of the benefits of integrated management for all ocean industries."

Previously when lobster fishermen were setting their trawls (series of traps), there were no guidelines on the amount of rope they used or the manner in which they set their traps. This plan attempts to keep rope out of the path of whales by specifying maximum rope lengths and optimal setting practices that keep ropes low and tight.

"Fishermen are often negatively portrayed when animals, particularly whales, become entangled in fishing gear", said Ashton Spinney, Industry Co-Chair of the LFA 34 Advisory Committee. "These rare and unfortunate situations are never intentional and no fisherman wants to see whales harmed."

In June, all of the port representatives in LFA 33 and 34 agreed, on behalf of their fishermen, to take this first step and adopt voluntary standard practices for lobster fishing. They also agreed to take further action in the future on reducing this threat as knowledge about entanglements improves.

"Fishermen always try to use the least amount of rope possible when setting trawls. None-the-less, fishermen want to show that they take this problem seriously and want to do more to reduce the threat to the right whale", said Paddy Gray, Industry Co-Chair of the LFA 33 Advisory Committee. "We encourage all our fishermen to follow them as much as possible when setting their gear."

"This is a great step towards minimizing threats and giving right whales a chance of recovery", said Rangeley. "More work is necessary to better understand the problem and the effectiveness of solutions that will ensure recovery of this magnificent species."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Endangered whales make a comeback, thanks to changes in shipping

By Steven Stycos | www.jamestownpress.com | November 25, 2009

"North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered of New England’s whales, are making a modest comeback, according to New England Aquarium’s senior scientist Moira Brown. American efforts to protect the endangered species, however, appear to be less successful than Canada’s, Brown said last week in a speech sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey at the University of Rhode Island.

The current population of 450 North Atlantic right whales annually migrates from winter calving areas along the coast of Florida and Georgia to summer feeding areas near Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. The typical right whale is 50 to 60 feet long and weighs 60 to 70 tons.

Recovery of the species will be slow, Brown predicted, because female right whales do not give birth until they are nine years old – and then only produce one calf every three years under optimal conditions. In the 1980s, the closely observed species produced about 12 calves per year, Brown said, but that dropped to just one birth in 2000.

Since then, however, the whales have averaged 20 offspring a year, with a record 39 births in 2009.

“Something looks much better,” said Brown, who is also a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute. Marine biologists have yet to pinpoint the cause of the baby boom, she added.

In the last three years, the U.S. and Canada have acted to reduce human-related whale deaths, although the impact of that action has yet to be reflected in the whale population figures. The leading causes of whale deaths, Brown said, are ship strikes, which account for half of all right whale deaths, and entanglement in fishing gear.

Unfortunately, whales’ principal food source – plankton – like deep-water basins, which are also ideal places for shipping channels. Nevertheless, Canadian efforts to reduce ship strikes have been highly successful, according to Brown, who has worked since 1985 to protect the mammal.

After ship strikes in the Bay of Fundy killed right whales in 1993, 1995 and 1997, Brown and others formed a working group with the shipping industry to address the problem. By moving shipping lanes 3.2 nautical miles southwest, the risk of vessel strikes was reduced 96 percent, Brown said.

Irving Oil, whose tankers regularly cross the bay, was particularly supportive of the move, she added.

In 2003 and 2006, a second problem area was identified as two whales were killed in collisions south of Nova Scotia. Using radio transmissions, scientists tracked ship traffic and learned that most boats avoid a key whale feeding area. Enough cross the area, however, to endanger the whales.

Again working with the shipping industry, scientists established a 980-square-nautical mile voluntary conservation area endorsed by the International Maritime Organization. In 2008, 70 percent of ships avoided the voluntary protection area. This year, compliance rose to 80 percent, Brown reported.

U.S. efforts haven’t worked as well, said Brown. In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service established seasonal low speed zones within 20 nautical miles of the East Coast to protect migrating whales. The zones, including the Great South Channel near Cape Cod, require ships to slow to 10 knots, but Brown said compliance is a disappointing 20 percent.

Canada achieved better results, Brown said, thanks to shipping industry cooperation and international support through the International Maritime Organization. The Canadian changes also increase voyage times far less than the American slow speed zones. Had Canada implemented a 10- knot zone rather than a voluntary conservation area, she said, trips would have been increased by two hours instead of 8.5 minutes.

Whales also die when entangled in fishing gear, Brown said – primarily the lines used to catch lobsters and ground fish. According

to studies, 75 percent of right whales have scars from entanglement and about 10 percent get entangled every year. In October 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service required gill nets be designed to break when wrapped around whales.

Then, in April 2009, the federal agency required that weights be attached to lines that link lobster pots to prevent them from floating where feeding whales may pass.

Brown is the driving force behind protection measures, according to URI marine biology professor Robert Kenney, and she is optimistic about the right whale’s future.

“We have more protective measures in place than we have ever had,” Brown noted, cautioning that the results of U.S. speed limits and fishing gear provisions have yet to be measured."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Endangered right whales returning to Georgia, Florida waters

Vessel operators must follow laws to protect the endangered species.

By The Times-Union | Story updated at 6:22 AM on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009

"BRUNSWICK - Endangered North Atlantic right whales are returning to Georgia and Florida coastal waters to winter, state wildlife biologists said.

The whales, which can be found as close as 3 miles offshore depending on water depth, spend the summer in the cooler waters off New England and Canada. Each fall, some return to Georgia and Florida for the winter.

About 200 right whales were documented off the Georgia coast during the 2008-09 season. That included 39 sets of mother and calf, which was a record. In addition, juveniles and single adult whales also were seen, biologists said.

This is the second straight year since 2005 that no adult whale deaths were reported. There were two calf mortalities last season, both from unknown causes. The 2008-09 season also included five whales entangled in commercial fishing gear. State and federal biologists working with researchers freed all but one of those whales.

After nearly 50 years of protected status, there are only an estimated 300 to 400 North Atlantic right whales left.

Boating restrictions

Commercial vessel operators are reminded that ships 65 feet or longer must follow federal speed restrictions when operating in waters designated as critical right whale habitat during certain times of year.

Those vessels are not allowed to travel faster than 10 knots under the National Marine Fisheries Service rule that went into effect Dec. 9.

Although the rule was recognized during the 2008-09 calving season, this is the first year it will be enforced by law enforcement, Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologists said.

Recreational vessels do not have to obey the speed limit, but National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration authorities recommend it."

Right whales returning to Ga-Fla.-waters

The Associated Press

"BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- Georgia wildlife biologists say North Atlantic right whales are returning to Georgia and Florida coastal waters for the winter.

The whales spend the summer in the cooler waters off New England and Canada. Each fall, some return to Georgia and Florida.

The Florida Times-Union reports that biologists say about 200 right whales were documented off the Georgia coast during the 2008-09 season, including a record 39 sets of mother and calf.

Commercial vessel operators are being reminded that ships 65 feet or longer must follow federal speed restrictions when operating in waters designated as critical right whale habitat during certain times of year."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Naming Right Whales!

I'm really excited that for the first time I've named two whales!!!

At our annual Right Whale Consortium meeting in New Bedford this year, the results of recent voting was announced and two of my candidates were selected:


Photo taken under permit by NOAA/NEFSC/Christin Khan

EGNO 1514 = Comet
Named for a scar on his back that resembles a comet trailing off to the right side.


Photo taken under permit by NOAA/NEFSC/Misty Niemeyer

EGNO 1503 = Trilogy
Named for the 3 small white lines on the left lip and 3 islands.

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Bedford Whaling Museum hosts North Atlantic Right Whale experts

SouthCoastToday.com
By DON CUDDY
November 19, 2009

"NEW BEDFORD — A symposium on the North Atlantic Right Whale, held Tuesday and Wednesday at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, drew 200 people from far and near to the Whaling City. The annual meeting is a gathering of the various entities known collectively as the New England Right Whale Consortium, a group comprising a variety of stakeholders whose primary focus is the study and conservation of the endangered right whale.

The consortium has existed since 1986, according to Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, who currently serves as president of the consortium's board of directors.

"We're very happy to be here in New Bedford where we've come for the past four or five years," Brown said. "It's a great location because of the area, because of the venue and it's a really interesting group of people in the room. We have scientists, biologists, government scientists, government managers, NGO groups, academia as well as people who represent fishing. We've also had captains and people from the shipping industry attend in previous years."

The actual event, during which the latest research and findings are discussed, is closed to the media.

"A lot of what is being discussed is a work in progress," Brown explained. "A lot of it is brainstorming. We want it to be a forum for free exchange of information and we think that the presence of media would inhibit that. But we are happy to have discussions on specific topics outside of the meeting."

For Michael Moore, a senior research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, holding the meeting in New Bedford is, above all, convenient, he said with a smile. Moore lives in Marion.

"I'm also on the board of trustees here at the museum," he said, "So when the gathering got too big for the New England Aquarium I was happy to see it coming to the city. We have 200 people who are staying in area hotels and eating in our restaurants."

People traveled from the Azores, Canada and even Italy to attend the gathering. "Some people from Genoa are looking to establish a sanctuary similar to Stellwagen in their waters," he said.

The right whale population in northern waters numbers around 415 according to best estimates, he said, and while the species is still endangered there has been a slow upward trend in the numbers since scientists first began their studies in the Bay of Fundy more than 25 years ago. Ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear remain the most common causes of right whale mortality, Moore said."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wareham scientist to get medal for aiding whales

SouthCoastToday.com
By MARY ANN BRAGG
mbragg@capecodonline.com
November 16, 2009 12:00 AM

"WAREHAM — Think of someone powerful enough to move a shipping lane: to alter the path of behemoth tankers and freighters coming into Boston from Africa, Canada and South America, representing an international industry.

You are probably thinking of someone with serious political or legal clout — or both.

But in a side street in East Wareham, in a historic part of town near the Agawam River, another kind of person has been at work on that lane to prevent ships from striking whales: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary scientist and research coordinator David Wiley.

On Thursday, Wiley, 56, will receive the U.S. Commerce Department's highest award for distinguished service, the Gold Medal. The award recognizes his leadership in ground-breaking research, including the relocation in July 2007 of a 5-mile-wide shipping lane within the sanctuary — using more subtle skills, such as scientific acumen, an understanding of human nature, the patience to bring doubters along with logical arguments, and even a bit of old-fashioned pleasantry.

And, for the record, the width of the lane was reduced to 4 miles, Wiley said.

"He can understand all sides of an issue," said Mason Weinrich, executive director of the Whale Center of New England, who worked directly with Wiley on the shipping lane issue. "He has a good analyst mind, and he's a super nice person. If he asks you for something, it's hard to say no, because you know something's behind it."

That's lucky for the whales.

The sanctuary is an 842-square-mile stretch of ocean and underwater environment between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, where marine mammals feed seasonally. The sanctuary also is home to 30 species of seabirds, more than 60 species of fish and hundreds of marine invertebrates and plants.

But the sanctuary also is the prime crossing ground for ships coming into Boston. They make about 3,400 trips across the sanctuary waters each year. The heaviest traffic comes from points south, through a designated shipping lane off the coast of Cape Cod, Wiley said.

Before the move of the lane in 2007, there were one or two reported ship strikes each year in the sanctuary area and likely a few more that went unreported, Wiley said. Which was too many, he said. The whales are humpbacks, fin whales and, the most endangered, North American right whales, he said.

To try to reduce the strikes, Wiley and his staff studied whale distribution data from whale-watch boats working in the sanctuary, to map out where the whales are generally swimming. Then they studied ship locations based on on-board tracking monitors. From that, Wiley and his staff identified an "ecological hole," an area the whales seem to avoid and where the ships could potentially go.

To persuade the shippers, Wiley went further, explaining through an analysis of ocean currents and the ocean floor why the whales seemed to congregate in certain areas.

Then, he drove from the sanctuary office in Scituate once a month for about six months in 2004 and 2005 to convince the shippers — with an array of options on a PowerPoint presentation — to move their lane: to a more dog-legged entry across the sanctuary water, several miles northeast of the existing lane. It add anywhere from nine to 22 minutes to the trip, depending on the ships' speed, Wiley said.

"He took a powerful initiative to engage a problem that has been troubling us — we who work with whales — for a long time," said Charles Mayo, director of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies right whale habitat studies.

Moving the shipping lane will not eliminate ship strikes, Wiley said, but the risk has been reduced by 81 percent. It will take a few years to see how many strikes are actually eliminated. But he was characteristically low-key, crediting federal officials and a handful of nonprofit groups for their help, and mentioning other issues that still need to be addressed.

"It's no more complex than any of it," Wiley said."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

JaxPort announces new program to protect right whales

"Striking a balance between commerce and the need to protect endangered species."

By Abel Harding, www.jacksonville.com
Story updated at 3:33 AM on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009

"Rick Ferrin, chief executive of the Jacksonville Port Authority, announced Friday that the Right Whale Protection & Ship Recognition Program, designed to better protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale population off the Florida-Georgia coast.

The program, launched with the support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will recognize vessel owners and operators who voluntarily comply with use of recommended travel lanes and abide by mandatory speed restrictions.

“We are striking a balance between commerce and the need to protect endangered species,” Ferrin said.

According to NOAA, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales in the world with a population of 300-400.

“What JaxPort is doing is an incredible contribution to right whale recovery,” said Barb Zoodsma, a NOAA official who was at Friday’s announcement.

The Humane Society’s marine issues field director Sharon Young says the new program will not change her group’s petition that is seeking to enlarge the whales “critical habitat.”

Speaking to the program’s recognition of companies that voluntarily comply with the law, Young said that it was good to recognize people for doing the right thing, but she questioned why there were no penalties for companies that failed to comply with the law.

“There’s almost no compliance with mandatory speed restrictions,” Young said, “and we have been encouraging [NOAA] to begin enforcement.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Migrating Right Whales Swim by Fort Fisher

By Gareth McGrath
Gareth.McGrath@StarNewsOnline.com

Published: Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 2:29 p.m.

"The sighting of 3 right whales by a team from the UNCW Marine Mammal Program on Sunday Nov 8th, approximately 3 miles off the coast of Fort Fisher State Park. Photo courtesy of UNCW Marine Mammal Program

Sightings of the highly endangered right whales in the near-shore waters off Virginia and the Carolinas aren’t new.

What has biologists buzzing is that three of the 400 or so whales were seen migrating south this early.

On Sunday, researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington spotted a trio of Atlantic right whales swimming just three miles off Fort Fisher.

“This is the earliest right whales have been officially seen and identified in our neck of the woods,” said Bill McLellan, the state’s marine mammal stranding coordinator and a member of UNCW’s biology department.

The researchers, after hearing a Coast Guard warning to mariners, spotted the whales off southern New Hanover County while returning from an aerial marine mammal survey of Onslow Bay for the Navy.

Thanks to the natural and unique skin growths on the whale’s faces and identification work done by the New England Aquarium and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, researchers were able to tag the animals as an 8-year-old female, a 4-year-old female and a 3-year-old male.

“This is absolute verification that these animals are in our waters in November,” said UNCW marine biologist Ann Pabst, adding that the earliest previous whale sighting in the Southeast was Nov. 17.

The sighting came a week after rules requiring large vessels to slow down when approaching most major ports along the East Coast came into effect.

The regulations, which run through April, limit the speed of ships over 65 feet to 10 knots when they are within 20 miles of the coast.

Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear are the top killers of right whales.

Along with rules for bigger ships, all boaters are required to avoid approaching and disturbing the whales and must report all sightings to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard, as it did earlier this week, will then broadcast an advisory to mariners to watch out for the lumbering marine giants as they continue on their near-shore migration route.

With no federally funded whale survey planned for the Mid-Atlantic this year, Pabst said reported sightings by boaters are a key tool in tracking the health, numbers and safety of the migrating right whales.

“It’s invaluable information that not only allows us to put protections in place, but alerts scientists who can then keep track of the animals and do a follow-up investigation if needed,” she said.

The right whale is among the most endangered animals on the planet.

The marine mammals, which can be more than 50 feet long and weigh 55 tons, used to be a common sight along the U.S. coastline.

But the large, slow-moving whale received its name because it was the easiest – and hence the “right” – whale for 19th-century whalers to hunt.

The whales spend the warm months off New England and the Canadian Maritimes before migrating down the coast to their traditional calving grounds off Georgia and North Florida.

Pabst said this week’s sighting continued a string of positive news about right whales, which includes a slight uptick in the number of animals in recent years and the new shipping speed-limit rules adopted last year.

“I think there’s some cautious optimism out there right now,” she said. “But there’s still a very long way to go.”

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Cautious optimism about right whales, during annual migration to Bay of Fundy

by Larry Lack, www.theworkingwaterfront.com

"The waters where the coasts of Maine and New Brunswick meet, where the St. Croix River widens into Passamaquoddy Bay and joins the Bay of Fundy, are key to the survival of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of North Atlantic whales.

These waters are the summer feeding grounds for several species of whales, including North Atlantic right whales, which are critically endangered. A small increase in right whale births last winter may justify some cautious optimism about whether right whales can escape extinction.

Right whales, along with finbacks, humpbacks and minkes from all over the northwest Atlantic depend on the these nutrient-rich waters to bulk up as they prepare for the long migration to southern United States waters and the Caribbean Sea.

During the summer and fall months in and near the Bay of Fundy, right whales gorge on up to a ton or more of plankton every day. This annual banquet provides them with a large part of their yearly nutritional needs and must sustain them beyond their migration into the winter months, which they spend in the relatively nutrient-poor warm southern waters where they were born and where some of them mate and give birth each year.

Late in August a large group of at least 40 North Atlantic right whales was observed for several days feeding near the small island group known as The Wolves just off the route of the ferry that links New Brunswick's Grand Manan Island with the mainland port of Black's Harbour (see "A close encounter with right whales").

Increased inshore sightings of right whales, which usually feed in deeper waters offshore caused a stir among whale researchers. Boatloads of whale watchers from Eastport and St. Andrews, N.B. were able to get a close look at these rare whales. There were also close encounters with humpbacks, which also spent more time inshore.

This summer and well into autumn The Wolves and another inshore feeding area, Head Harbour Passage, between Deer Island and Campobello Island in Canada, were also home to especially large numbers of the finback and minke whales, which are more commonly seen there.

Laurie Murison, who directs the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, says whales near the mouth of Fundy change locations almost entirely in response to where they're finding herring and krill, and also copepods and other plankton, miniscule to microscopic creatures that congregate here in vast shoals.

In Fundy's waters, moved about by wind, tides, currents and temperature changes, the huge clouds of copepods that are the favorite food of right whales, can contain as many as 100,000 animals per square meter of seawater. The lower Bay of Fundy and the nearby Gulf of Maine are among the world's richest sources of these tiny crustaceans.

Because they swim slowly (their top speed is only about four miles an hour; some other kinds of whales can swim more than five times that fast), are rich in oil and whalebone and float when they are dead, right whales were considered the "right" whales to hunt and kill. When the League of Nations outlawed killing them in 1935 their population had been reduced to a few hundred; in 2001 only 300 of them were thought to exist. Right whale reproduction is a slow process. Female rights don't start producing young until they are at least 10 years old. After that they bear a single calf once every three years at most.

Whale experts have calculated that for the species to recover, 20 to 24 right whale calves must be born each year. In 1999 just five right calves were born, and in 2000 only a single calf was born that year. And these six calves were all born to females from the Gulf of St. Lawrence right whale population; none was from the herd that feeds in the Bay of Fundy.

In 2001, 32 right whale calves were born that year, well distributed between the two main populations. But births in subsequent years dropped close to or below the recovery level until this year, when Northern rights, which give birth off Florida and Georgia, produced 39 calves, the most since record keeping began in 1979. As a result, researchers have raised the estimate of their current population to 400.

But even if this rate of births continues, it would take Northern rights well over a century to rebuild their population to a safe survival level similar to the current population of Southern right whales, which is thought to number between 7,000 and 10,000.

Optimism about right whale recovery is tempered when conditions in the habitats of Northern and Southern rights are compared. Southern right whales, which feed in the Antarctic, live in waters that see very little ship traffic compared with the very busy (and highly polluted) shipping lanes along the U.S. east coast that Northern rights traverse twice annually. Because their slow speed makes it hard for them to avoid ships moving toward them, right whales are extremely vulnerable to ship strikes, which account for more right whale deaths than any other cause. Another major cause of Northern right whale deaths is fishing gear entanglements. An estimated 65 to 75 per cent of Northern right whales have entanglement scars."

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

SMM Conference in Quebec!

Another two years has gone by, and once again the Society for Marine Mammalogy has provided the opportunity to share the latest research and catch up with old friends and colleagues. Below is the poster that I was co-author on this year...