Wednesday, July 14, 2010

{Press} Scientists say fishing gear killed right whale found off Cape May | Michael Miller | July 14, 2010

"A right whale found dead June 29 off Cape May was killed by entanglement in some kind of fishing or boating gear, federal officials said.

The adult male was towed to a Delaware Seashore State Park near Rehoboth Beach, Del., and a necropsy began soon after it arrived on July 1.

The results show the whale died from injuries it suffered after getting wrapped in gear, which came off and was lost while the animal was being towed to shore.

“It died from long-term entanglement. It was carrying the gear a long time. One flipper was severely damaged and there was damage to the head. It got sicker and weaker,” said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Right whales pass New Jersey twice a year as they migrate between feeding grounds in Canada and waters off Florida where their calves are born.

The North Atlantic population is nearly extinct, making each of the estimated 325 to 400 surviving mammals critically important for the future of the species. These whales are especially susceptible to boat strikes and entanglements in ropes and nets that get caught in baleen they use to filter krill and shrimp.

The source of the gear was not identified, Frady said. It fell off when the whale was towed.

“This population does not seem to have had a substantial rebound. We are making progress, even though it’s slow. It’s hard to estimate because there are so few animals,” Frady said.

Researchers in Massachusetts are studying how a network of sound buoys might be used to steer boats around whales in busy shipping lanes.

The U.S. Coast Guard alerts boaters when it gets reports about nearby whales. But the sonar buoys could provide greater geographic detail to help commercial boats avoid the whales.

“For the most part, their habitats are very near shore for a whale. They’re living in the same area that boaters use. They don’t get out of the way of boats. We don’t know why that is,” she said.

Historically, whalers prized right whales because they swam slowly and floated when killed. But Frady said relatively little is known about the whales, especially the males that tend to cover bigger geographic areas.

Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said a right whale was regularly spotted off local beaches years ago.

“We would get panicked calls from fishermen who were afraid the whale was going to beach,” he said. “They have an underwater map of our coastal waters. For many years you’d see the same right whale stopping at Ninth Street in Ocean City and scratching its belly on the jetties. It would do the same thing in Brigantine.”

Unlike other imperiled marine species that are on the brink of extinction because of unregulated fishing in foreign countries, right whale mortality is largely an American problem. This population is only found along the North American coastline.

“It is our responsibility and our problem,” Schoelkopf said.

Federal regulators have set speed limits for commercial ships in some areas and require modified fishing gear that breaks away to prevent entanglements. But Schoelkopf said enforcement is too lax.

And he fears the whales will encounter problems with the British Petroleum oil spill this fall when they return to Florida for the winter."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

{Press} North Atlantic right whales struggling to make themselves heard, new research suggests

L.A. Unleashed | Lindsay Barnett | July 13, 2010

"Much like humans struggling to make themselves heard by companions in a loud restaurant, North Atlantic right whales must raise their voices to compensate for the increasing volume of ambient noise in the ocean, according to new research.

North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species, live primarily in the waters off eastern Canada and the U.S. The whales frequent areas with a high level of commercial, naval and recreational shipping traffic, according to Susan Parks, lead author of the study. Compounding the problem, Parks says, is the fact that commercial ships generate noise at the same frequency as the whales' calls.

The study, which has been published in the July issue of Biology Letters, followed 14 North Atlantic right whales living in Canada's Bay of Fundy. It found that the whales "are compensating for increased ocean noise by going up in volume when they call to one another, which is basically the same thing that humans do when they're trying to talk in really noisy bars," according to Joseph Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society at UC Davis, who was not involved in the study.

The research brings up new and troubling questions. Since right whales rely far more on sound than sight or other senses, will increased noise levels eventually force them to remain closer together in order to communicate with one another? If so, scientists speculate, the area where the whales mate and search for food could shrink substantially."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

{Press} Right whales yell over the ocean din | Michael Marshall | July 7, 2010

To cope with the blitzing level of noise in today's oceans, North Atlantic right whales are calling louder to each other. It is the first time a baleen whale has been observed compensating for the din in this way.

Susan Parks of Pennsylvania State University in University Park and colleagues set out to record both the whales' calls and the background noise they have to cope with. To do this, they attached audio data recorders to the whales.

Parks and her colleagues took to boats to approach surfacing whales, using poles to lower the recorders onto the animals' backs. The recorders were held in place by suction cups programmed to drop off after a few hours and float to the surface, allowing the team to collect the recorded data.

The team repeated the study over three seasons in the Gulf of Maine, where the whales come to feed in summer. In total the group recorded 107 calls from 14 whales.

The underwater background noise ranged from 92 to 143 decibels – between the volume of a conversation and a hair dryer. The whales changed their calls in line with the background noise, taking them from 120 dB to just under 150 dB – just as humans do when talking in a loud room.

"The whales have natural mechanisms for coping with noise," says Parks.

The main source of the background noise in the Gulf of Maine is commercial shipping – particularly coming in and out of Boston – which produces a constant rumble or roar.

It is often reported that the noise level in the oceans has risen a hundredfold over the past 60 years, though Parks cautions that this is based solely on studies conducted off the west coast of the US.

She says that shipping noise is a particular problem for baleen whales like the North Atlantic right whale, because their calls are roughly the same pitch. Other species – killer whales, for instance – call at higher pitches, though these whales may be affected by other noises, such as sonar.

Baleen whales rely on their calls to find each other: females use them to attract mates, and to call lost calves. "We don't know if the noise is affecting their ability to communicate," says Parks.

The noise levels recorded by Parks were "fairly moderate", she says, as no large ships passed close to the whales while she was recording. If ships were coming by very frequently, the noise might be louder than the whales could compensate for. "They might just stop talking altogether," she says.

If the noise is disrupting the whales' communication, it would be bad news for the species. North Atlantic right whales are endangered: there are fewer than 400 animals left in the wild including only 70 females able to have calves.

Christopher Clark of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, thinks the study is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the whales' communication, but cautions that it is "a very small sample size, from relatively few animals and in a very specific context".

Clark suggests that the whales' response to noise may depend on their location. They spend their winters calving off the coasts of Georgia and Florida where, instead of increasing the volume of their calls in response to noise, they just stop calling, he says. Whales have also been seen changing course to get out of the noisiest areas.

"The Gulf of Maine is their summer residence, where they're feeding and making friends," says Clark. "They're very social and get together in large groups." As a result, they may place a higher importance on communication in the summer.

Like Parks, he emphasises the high volume of noise in the Gulf of Maine. "If I had to immerse you into the sea off Boston, you'd be shocked. You'd be like a country mouse dropped in the middle of Heathrow Airport," says Clark. "In one generation, we have raised the background level for an entire ocean ecosystem."

Friday, July 02, 2010

{Press} Dead whale towed ashore near Dewey

MOLLY MURRAY • The News Journal • July 1, 2010

A large, northern right whale – the most endangered of all North Atlantic Whale species – was towed to Delaware Seashore State Park today after it was discovered dead and floating about 46 miles off the Delaware Coast.

A team that includes some of the region’s foremost experts on large whale species began cutting away parts of the 45.2-foot long creature to determine how it perished.

That process, including an analysis of the remaining skin as well as flesh and organ samplescould take months as fisheries experts look at everything from the possibility of chemical or toxin exposure to disease, parasites or signs that the whale may have been struck by a passing ship, said David Morin, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service.

“It’s definitely not a fresh carcass,” he said.

Much of the skin was missing. The baleen – that the whale would have once used to filter its food – was gone, said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the MERR Institute, Delaware’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

The Delaware group is standing by to assist with the necropsy but because northern right whales are so rare – the population is estimate to number 300 to 400 in the North Atlantic – federal officials assembled a coastwide team of experts to respond to the beach at the state park, just south of Dewey Beach.

Delaware has had its share of dead and stranded whales wash ashore – including a massive fin whale earlier this year.

But state standing teams have never responded to a right whale, Thurman said.

Two live right whales swam into Indian River Inlet in January 2007 and several years earlier, a right whale swam up the Delaware Bay and River and ended up at Philadelphia before it made its way back to the ocean.

The Coast Guard Cutter Legare, which was returning to Portsmouth, Va., from a 33-day deployment in the mid-Atlantic, discovered the whale Tuesday floating off-shore.

Crews on the ship took photographs of the large whale and provided them to
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

{Update} Sad news

We have received two reports of dead right whales in recent days... a serious tragedy for a species which only numbers around 400 individuals.