Thursday, October 21, 2010

{Flight} 21 October 2010 Georges Shoal

Came across one right whale today on Jeffrey's Ledge, but none out on Georges Shoal. Only thing we saw out there at all was one basking shark...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

{Press} Threatened right whales may get wider berth

Cape Cod Times | Mary Ann Bragg | October 09, 2010

"The rare and treasured right whales that feed in waters off Cape Cod in late winter and early spring may have their protected grounds expanded as part of a federal process designed to protect populations of endangered animals.

Scientific research shows that it may be necessary to expand three East Coast calving and feeding areas for North Atlantic right whales, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced this week.

The decision to expand the habitat boundaries would come in the second half of 2011. Then there would be a public review of the proposal that would take several months, said Teri Frady, fisheries service spokesperson.

The announcement was spawned by the efforts of four animal conservation groups that filed a petition in 2009, then a federal lawsuit in May looking to widen North Atlantic right whale habitats along the East Coast. The groups are The Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

New technology and methodologies that track whales, such as acoustic buoys, satellite telemetry and aerial surveys, have shown the marine mammals regularly use wider swaths than the federal limits established in 1994, said Sharon Young of Sagamore Beach, the Marine Issues Field Director of The Humane Society of the United States.

The three current seasonal right whale habitats are the calving grounds off Florida and Georgia and the feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel off Massachusetts.

The conservation groups want to double the size of the calving grounds, expanding them to areas off North Carolina. They want to at least triple the size of the feeding grounds, expanding them to the Canadian border. The groups also want seasonal protections for the whale's migration path along the East Coast, said Young.

Cape Cod Bay, in particular, continues to be an important habitat and also a laboratory for fine-tuning management practices to protect right whales, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Plymouth. State officials, for example, have cleaned up unattended fishing gear in the bay.

"I think it's a really good template for what a habitat can be," Asmutis-Silvia said.

There are estimated to be between 300 and 400 North Atlantic right whales living along the East Coast, according to federal data. The whales have been listed as endangered through the federal Endangered Species Act since the early 1970s..

Generally, whales contribute in many ways to an ocean's ecosystem, including recent research that sperm whale excrement fertilizes aquatic plants that absorb the carbon linked to greenhouse gases and global warming, said Asmutis-Silvia.

"We were gratified that the agency agreed to expand the habitats," said Young. "They agreed they would be proposing new boundaries next year. We'll have to wait to see what they propose."

Along the East Coast, the North Atlantic right whales have made slow population gains in the last half-dozen years, said Mason Weinrich, executive director of the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester. He attributes the gains to an increase in calves and new rules and procedures that have slowed ship speeds and helped prevent fishing line entanglements. "I'm cautiously optimistic," Weinrich said.

Expanding the whales' critical habitat boundaries by itself would do very little, Weinrich said. But expansion would be an important step to ensure that future ocean projects and developments along the East Coast do no harm, based on the latest scientific evidence of where right whales truly birth and feed, he said.

"One is a step to the other," Weinrich said."

{Press} North Atlantic Right Whales to Get Expanded Critical Habitat

Environment News Service | October 6, 2010

"WASHINGTON, DC, October 6, 2010 (ENS) - In response to a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, the NOAA's Fisheries Service agreed Tuesday to revise critical habitat designations for North Atlantic right whales. The critically endangered species numbers fewer than 400 whales after centuries of commercial whaling.

The move comes after a federal lawsuit was filed by The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

The lawsuit challenged the agency's failure to respond to the groups' August 2009 petition, which sought to expand current critical habitat protections.

The agency designated three critical habitat areas in U.S. waters for these whales in 1994 - calving grounds off Florida and Georgia and feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel, both off Massachusetts.
North Atlantic right whales (Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries Service)

The groups argue that these protected areas are inadequate to allow the whales to recover.

The Endangered Species Act requires that the government respond to petitions within 90 days after they are received, but the Fisheries Service did not respond to the August 2009 petition until this week, after a lawsuit was filed to compel the agency's response.

In its announcement the Fisheries Service said it received the petition "while conducting an ongoing analysis and evaluation of new information available since the 1994 designation that indicates the designation should be revised."

The Service said it expects to propose the critical habitat changes in the second half of 2011.

"We are delighted the administration is moving to protect critical habitat for right whales without further delay," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for The Humane Society of the United States. "This is a crucial step forward on the path to recovery for one of the world's most endangered animals."

Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said, "Critical habitat ensures precautions are taken when potentially dangerous activities like oil drilling and commercial shipping are being planned and carried out."

Right whales are large baleen whales that grow to between 45 and 55 feet in length and can weigh up to 70 tons. Calves are 13 to 15 feet in length at birth.

Right whales migrate from their calving grounds off the southeastern United States to their feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada. Adult female right whales reach reproductive maturity at around nine to 10 years old and give birth to one calf every four years.

The only known calving ground for North Atlantic right whales is in shallow waters off the coast of Georgia and Florida, yet the groups point out that births occur outside of the area currently designated as critical habitat.

In 2008, 18 of the 19 newborn calves documented were born in areas just outside of the protected area.

"Protecting key calving and migration habitat is essential to the continued survival of this species," said Sarah Uhlemann, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "With a population of only 400 animals, every whale - and every square mile of protected habitat - counts."

Every year female right whales die from being hit by ships or entangled in commercial fishing gear in unprotected areas of the busy Atlantic Coastal waters.

The Fisheries Service explains that "critical habitat is an area that contains physical or biological features that may require special management and that are essential to the conservation of the species."

"You can't protect a species without also protecting what it needs to survive," said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, senior biologist for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

"Current critical habitat boundaries are akin to protecting our children in certain areas of their schools and specific rooms in their homes with no protection for them as they move between home and school. What we need is full protection in the areas where right whales feed, calve and the migratory route between those areas."

The Fisheries Service has taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of ship collisions to whales, including:

* Mandatory vessel speed restrictions in Seasonal Management Areas
* Voluntary speed reductions in Dynamic Management Areas and a seasonal Area To Be Avoided
* Recommended shipping routes
* Modification of international shipping lanes
* Aircraft surveys and right whale alerts
* Ship speed advisories
* Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems
* Outreach and Education

To address entanglement in fishing gear, the Service has established the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. This team developed a plan to reduce the incidental serious injury and mortality of right, humpback, fin, and minke whales in gillnet and lobster trap fisheries."

{Press} Feds to propose changes to whale protection areas

Associated Press | October 5, 2010

"BOSTON — Federal regulators say they'll propose changes to three areas off the East Coast where special rules protect rare right whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear or struck by ships.

The whale protection areas are a calving ground for the North Atlantic Right Whale off Georgia and Florida and two feeding grounds off Massachusetts. Certain types of fishing gear are forbidden in these areas and there are vessel speed restrictions when whales are around.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday that evidence gathered since the areas were established in 1994 — including the number of whales and where they were found — show the program may need to be revised. The agency expects to make recommendations next year."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

{Flight} 03 October 2010 Jeffrey's Ledge

It's been along time since we flew a right whale survey, and it was really nice to be back up in the air! Our airplane (a NOAA Twin Otter) has been assisting efforts in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill since the end of May, and just returned to Hyannis last week. We flew out to Jeffrey's Ledge where we spotted two right whales in a surface active group.

Hopefully we get some good weather so we can get out there again soon and see where the rest of the right whales are hiding!

Friday, October 01, 2010

{Press} Warning system keeps ships, right whales apart

By Doug Fraser | Doug Fraser | September 30, 2010

"PROVINCETOWN — The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary display at the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Province Lands Visitor Center is surprisingly modest, with computerized charts and an accompanying video.

Those who stop by to see it are looking into a portal that reveals how private industry, scientists, researchers and the government can work together to benefit the environment — in this case, to prevent ships from hitting right whales.

The new warning system is the first in the world to show, in real time, the general presence of endangered whales as well as ships in one of the mammals’ most populous gathering spots.

Scientist and sanctuary research coordinator David Wiley last year garnered the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal, the agency’s top honor, for his role in relocating busy international shipping lanes around the Outer Cape to minimize whale strikes and for the sanctuary project publicized in the Province Lands exhibit.

The display shows shipping lanes that bend around the Cape and make a beeline for Boston, cutting through the heart of the sanctuary. Ships make about 3,400 trips across the sanctuary each year. A brief video with whales, ships and satellites helps explain graphics on an adjacent chart showing the ships moving in and out of Boston and the right whales that also might be in the area.

In a telephone interview this week, Wiley recalled that in 2007, the hard-won agreement with the international shipping industry that shifted shipping lanes to protect whales was suddenly jeopardized when Excelerate Energy and Suez Energy decided to locate two deepwater liquefied natural gas "ports" close to the sanctuary and the reconfigured marine highway.

LNG ships are among the fastest and largest vessels afloat, he explained. In the case of whales, it is speed that kills. Slowing vessels by just a few knots dramatically increases the whales’ chances of surviving or avoiding a collision."