Thursday, December 23, 2010

{Update} Calving season has begun!

The aerial survey teams in the Southeast US have now spotted a total of 6 mother-calf pairs of North Atlantic right whales so far this year!!! There are little over 400 individuals in the entire species, so each new calf is a cause for celebration and one step further away from extinction...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

{Press} First right whale calf of the season sighted off Sapelo Island

Savannah Now | Mary Landers | December 7, 2010

"Biologists spotted the first baby whale of the North Atlantic right whale calving season Friday off Sapelo Island.

"The calf was swimming steadily alongside its mother and appeared healthy," said Clay George, natural resources biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Right whales are highly endangered with an estimated 350-450 remaining. They were hunted to near extinction for their blubber and baleen in the 18th and 19th centuries when they were the "right" whale to catch because they swam slowly and floated when dead.

Now they're the focus of an intense monitoring and protection effort. Biologists from the EcoHealth Alliance (formerly the Wildlife Trust) and the Georgia DNR fly aerial surveys looking for the animals off the Georgia coast from December through March. Similar efforts extend southward into the waters off Florida and northward to the waters off South Carolina. The waters off the Southeast are their only known calving grounds.

Friday's mother and calf were a bit of a surprise because they were the first whales spotted by the Georgia team this season.

"Usually, we will see some very pregnant looking-females before we sight the first calf of the season," said Patricia Naessig, who heads up the EcoHealth Alliance team.

The calf appeared to be at least a week or two old based on the growth of white sea lice on its head.

During aerial surveys, biologists take photos and make detailed records of the whales they see. They also alert mariners about right whale locations in an effort to reduce the risk of ships striking the animals. Right whales can grow to 70 tons and 55 feet long, but can still be hard for ships' captains to see when they rest at the surface.

The adult female, or cow, spotted Friday was identified tentatively as No. 1064. She's an adult of unknown age first documented in 1989. The calf is her fourth recorded baby.

"The mother and calf were definitely showing some body contact," Naessig said. "At one point, we observed the calf laying across the back of the mother."

Right whales can give birth every three years at most. They had a record showing in 2008/2009 with 40 calves sighted. Last season that number was down to 19.

"It's too early to make any predictions about this year's calf count," George said. "We don't know how many pregnant females are currently in southeast U.S. waters, as high winds have limited the amount of survey effort so far this season."

Naessig is optimistic.

"Hopefully, sighting a mother and calf so early in the season is a good sign that we will be seeing lots of calves in the Southeast this year," she said."

{Update} New NEFSC website is live!!!


New and improved with all sorts of juicy stuff including a Google Earth map display of right whale sightings by season, yearly aerial survey team reports, how to report a right whale sighting, and links to other important right whale resources!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

{Press} Rules protect right whales from speeding ships

StarNews Online | Gareth McGrath | December 4, 2010

"The federal government has again enacted go-slow zones for vessels traveling along the mid-Atlantic coast to help protect one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

But this year, the speed-limit rules meant to prevent large ships from colliding with the North Atlantic right whales come with some muscle behind them.

For the first time since the seasonal management areas were established in December 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has cited seven vessels for allegedly going too fast.

The notice of violations issued earlier this month was for ships that allegedly traveled multiple times through the zones last year at speeds well in excess of the 10 knots allowed.

The rule requires all ships over 65 feet to slow down to 10 knots, or 11.5 mph, when within 20 nautical miles of mid-Atlantic ports, including North Carolina's two deepwater ports in Wilmington and Morehead City.

The go-slow zones run from Nov. 1 through April 30, the times at which North Atlantic right whales are known to migrate along the near-shore waters extending from Rhode Island to Georgia.

The animal's calving grounds are off Georgia and Florida, although the whales have been known to give birth farther north also.

Right whales were once a relatively 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, which they did with reckless abandon.

That's left a population today estimated at only 400 animals, with every whale considered critical for the species survival.

But Ann Pabst, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said that for the first time in a long time she's feeling optimistic about the animal's chances to avoid extinction.

Ship strikes and getting tangled in old fishing gear are among the leading killers of the animals.

But since the new speed-limit rules for ships were introduced, Pabst said, there hasn't been a known ship-strike death of a right whale in the Southeast.

Coupled with that, the slow-breeding right whale has been on a bit of a birthing boom.

Pabst said that since 2001, an estimated 200 calves have been born – including two believed to have been born off Wrighstville Beach by "Calvin," who was originally identified as a male before scientists discovered otherwise.

"So the right whales are doing their part," she said. "And with these continued conservation and management steps we've taken in recent years, I'm hopeful we're on the right path."

But, Pabst cautioned, there's still a long way to go.

To that end she said mariners should immediately notify the Coast Guard if they see a right whale, or any whale for that matter, off the coast.

Pabst said the annual migration south takes place in the fall and early winter, with the whales returning to their summer grounds off New England and the Canadian maritime provinces in late spring.

"And they're here now," she said, adding that boaters should also stay a safe distance away from the animals if they happen to come across one. "There's no doubt about that."

Pabst said there were several sightings just before Thanksgiving, with the Coast Guard issuing an alert to mariners Nov. 22"

Friday, December 03, 2010

{Press} Ships Break Speed Limits Set to Protect Right Whales

OnEarth Blog | Emily Gertz | December 2, 2010

"Christmastime. The winter holidays. Five weeks best spent hiding under a rock. Whatever you like to call this time of year, chances are that "period when seasonal speed limits go into effect off the Atlantic coast" has never come to mind.

But under a 2008 law intended to curb violent collisions between big ships and extremely endangered North Atlantic right whales, seasonal speed limits of 10 knots per hour (roughly 12 mph) took effect in early November, for vessels 65 feet long or greater. The rules apply to "seasonal management areas" where right whales are known to travel.

And the Obama administration is apparently enforcing them: In mid-November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced that it had charged seven commercial ships with 49 counts of potentially deadly speeding, in violation of the right whale protection law.

NOAA is not revealing the identities of the seven vessels, says agency spokeswoman Lesli Bales-Sherrod, "until we know that the owners and operators have received the NOVAs," or notices of violations. She states that they have until mid-December to respond in one of three ways: pay the fines, ranging from $16,500 to $49,500; ask for the fines to be reduced; or request an administrative hearing over the charges.

Bales-Sherrod did convey that most the violations occurred in seasonal management areas, or SMAs, off the southeastern U.S. -- 26 in the Charleston SMA, 10 in the Savannah SMA, and 8 in the Norfolk SMA -- along with 5 in the New York SMA. All 49 speeding incidents occurred between Nov. 2009 and April 2010.

This year, the speed limits went into effect on Nov. 1 in areas between Brunswick, Ga. and Rhode Island, and on Nov. 15 from Brunswick to St. Augustine, Fla., according to Bales-Sherrod.

Once the foundation of the New England whaling industry, only 350-400 North Atlantic right whales have survived into the 21st century. Although the precise number of right whales struck by ships every year is unknown, these collisions are widely acknowledged to be major threats to their survival as a species. Scientific research cited by NOAA suggests that while one or two right whales hit by ships are found every year, there are likey more casualties that humans never see.

In 2008, the Bush administration enacted the speed limit law, called the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule [PDF], following two years of delays credited by some at the time -- including Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, as well as Olympia Snowe of Maine -- to pressure from the maritime shipping industry. The regulations will expire at the end of 2013, unless NOAA opts to re-issue them.

"It seems, at the anecdotal level, that we're seeing a reduction in ship strikes," says Michael Moore, a senior biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Moore is often called in to analyze the corpses of marine mammals that wash ashore along the Eastern Seaboard, including right whales. The animals sometimes have gashes or scars from ship impacts, although that may not be the direct cause of death in every case.

Since the speed limits came into effect, "my gut is that things have improved," Moore says. "It would need another couple of years, and a decent statistical analysis, to get beyond the anecdotal level."

Bales-Sherrod says that NOAA is beginning to gather data on whether the speed limits are reducing whale-vessel collisions."