Thursday, November 12, 2009

Migrating Right Whales Swim by Fort Fisher

By Gareth McGrath

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.”

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