Saturday, May 01, 2010

{Press} Right whales right off our shores

The Block Island Times | Dan West | May 1, 2010

"The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration spotted 98 rare North Atlantic right whales between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard on Monday.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts have asked boats to reduce speed to 10 knots when traveling through the area where the whales have been seen. It is also illegal to go within 500 yards of the animals without special permission.

Robert Kenney, an associate marine research scientist at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, studies right whales. He says the whales have been on the endangered list for 80 years and are considered the most endangered of all whale species. The 100 individual whales spotted along the New England coast in the last two weeks represent about one quarter of the total right whale population left in the world’s ocean. However, Kenney said sightings of that size are not uncommon in areas off Canada, where the whales live in the summer, or off the southern coast in the winter.

What is unusual about this sighting was the large number seen while they are migrating between their summer and winter homes. Kenney said that since right whales are not especially social animals they aren’t normally seen in such high numbers as they migrate. They do not usually travel in large pods but rather swim alone or in a very small group.

Kenney said that right whales have been migrating along the East Coast for hundreds or even thousands of years. When their food is abundant the whales will stay in the area for an extended period of time to feed before continuing north.

“The same type of event happened in 1998,” Kenney said. “This isn’t a one-time thing it’s more of an occasional event.”

Nearly all of the whales were in an area being studied for the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan.

The Ocean SAMP is an effort to evaluate and zone Rhode Island coastal waters with an eye toward commercial wind development. The study will cover wide-ranging issues — shipping traffic, bird migration — that could be impacted by possible wind farm development.

According to Laura Ricketson-Dwyer, information coordinator for the Coastal Resources Management Council, the whale sightings have “no impact to the Ocean SAMP or how we are developing it.”

Ricketson-Dwyer explained that the researchers at URI have added the whale sightings to their database but they will not have an immediate impact on the SAMP.

Kenney said that the SAMP would be taking a lot of information into account. He explained that before any wind farm is approved it would need to pass an environmental study that would consider whale migration patterns.

Meanwhile, whale spouts have been sighted all around Block Island in the last week — from the bluffs, the end of Cooneymus Road as well as the ferry."

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