Tuesday, June 28, 2011

{Press} Government discusses right whale safety

The Brunswich News | Anna Ferguson Hall | June 28, 2011

"New federal rules may be in the offing to protect right whales from the dangers of swimming in waters where commercial fishing is taking place.

The National Marines Fisheries Service is pondering the adoption of rules that govern the type of gear that can be used in certain zones, as well as what marking must be used to identify equipment.

Federal fishery regulators have scheduled 15 public meetings on the East Coast to collect input in the development of new regulations aimed to prevent endangered or threatened whales, such as the right, humpback and finback whales, from becoming entangled in fishing gear, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said.

The issue of entanglement is a major problem for whales in waters off the East Coast. Talks about ramping up regulations to protect the aquatic mammals have been in the works for some time, said Clay George, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Team, made up of biologists and conservationists with NOAA, formed a plan to help curb instances of deaths and injuries caused whales bound by fishing gear.

The official new rules will be molded with input reeled in during a series of 15 public meetings, the first of which is set for July 11 in East Machias, Maine. Meetings in Georgia and Florida are set for Aug. 29 in Jacksonville, and Aug. 24 in Garden City, near Savannah.

New federal rules to protect right whales will be the topic of a series of 15 public meetings in Atlantic coastal states. (Provided photo/File)

One idea being discussed is increasing marking regulations on fishing gear so fisheries can be held more responsible, George said. Other suggested regulations include placing greater restrictions on gear left in water for long periods of time. That would include limiting the number of lobster nets a fishery can use.

The major measures and rules being discussed will likely not have a large impact on fisheries off the Georgia coast. For the most part, regulations will be geared toward fisheries in the Northeast, such as lobster catchers, George said.

Along the southern coastline, the only fisheries that would be impacted are those that use buoy lines or gillnets for catching blue crabs and black sea bass.

"These rules will have the most impact in the northern sates where the whales live on a more full-time basis," George said.

Regulations approved by NOAA following the series of scoping meetings will go into effect in 2014.

Right whales migrate south in the late winter and early spring months to give birth. In the past decade or so, there's been an increase in whale deaths due to boat strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. This past whaling season, though, George found encouraging news. Efforts started several years ago have proven beneficial. The total right whale population had risen 2 percent and southern right whale populations by 5 to 6 percent, he said.

"That is less than we believed it would rise, but it is not decline," George said. "The numbers could be better, but at least the numbers are going up."

Learn more:

A schedule of public meetings and locations can be found on the NOAA web site: www.nero.noaa.gov."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

{Flight} 21 June 2011 Georges Basin

Today I saw sperm whales for the first time! Very exciting! We also saw 38 pilot whales, 20 fin whales, 7 humpback whales, 17 sei whales, 2 minke whales, 319 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 3 harbor porpoise, 2 basking sharks, 18 ocean sunfish, and one blue shark! Our survey area (Georges Basin) today was the furthest offshore of the areas we cover...

Friday, June 17, 2011

{Press} Bay of Fundy an ocean wonder

Travel Canada | Nicole Feenstra | June 7, 2011

The Bay of Fundy wants your vote!

"In honour of World Oceans Day on June 8, Bay of Fundy Tourism is reminding Canadians about our only entry in the global New7Wonders of Nature campaign.

The Bay of Fundy is one of the most remarkable ocean environments on Earth. The tides here are the highest in the world and a wide array of animals call the Bay home, including sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and whales. The endangered North Atlantic right whale also inhabits the Bay of Fundy.

“With the online voting system, people can vote for seven of the top 28 finalists. World Oceans Day seems like a perfect chance to support several of the world’s most significant ocean wonders… and Canada’s Bay of Fundy is one of the most impressive,” says Bay of Fundy Tourism’s executive director Terri McCulloch. “It’s a chance to celebrate oceans and to help Canada claim its place among the New7Wonders of Nature.”

The Bay of Fundy is currently ranked 18th in the field of 28 finalists. Argentina and Brazil’s Iguazu Falls leads the list, with the Amazon and Vietnam’s Halong Bay following.

Canadians can vote for free online at New7Wonders.com or via text message by texting FUNDY to 77077. Text votes cost 25 cents each.

The New7Wonders of Nature will be announced on Nov. 11, 2011."

{Press} Marine Matters: Seeing in the Dark

The Free Press | Melissa Waterman | June 8, 2011

"My eyesight is not what it once was. Actually, to be honest, I have never had good eyesight. In elementary school, my constant squinting ultimately led a teacher to suggest to my mother that I take a vision test. Lo and behold, I was pronounced decidedly nearsighted. My mother duly marched me off to a store in Fall River to purchase my very first pair of remarkably ugly glasses. When I came out of the building sporting my new glasses I quickly realized that trees were not undifferentiated masses of green: they bore individual leaves!

As an adolescent I anguished about my scholarly look. As a young adult I worried about an apocalyptic New World in which my glasses were broken and no replacement lenses existed. As an occasional sailor and kayaker, I fretted about losing the damn things overboard. Still, I could see pretty well most of the time.

Now my eyes are on another tack. Text in the morning newspaper has taken to wavering. The writing on packages in the grocery store has softened into a fog. Names and numbers in the telephone directory are hopeless. In order to read, I must consign myself to yet another pair of glasses, this time reading glasses.

North Atlantic right whales, however, have no such option. These migratory mammals cannot afford the luxury of bad eyesight. In order to seek and find prey, the right whale must use its sense of sight in the dark waters of the deep ocean. Fortunately, it has eyeballs the size of grapefruits to do so. According to Dr. Scott Kraus, vice president of research at the New England Aquarium in Boston and co-author of Disappearing Giants: The North Atlantic Right Whale, right whales rely on their eyesight for close-range navigation. A right whale's vision is well adapted to the lower levels of light found in the ocean, yet retains fairly high resolution.

Right whales, however, continue to get tangled up in fishing gear. The Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction estimates that 78% of known North Atlantic right whales (those identified by photographs) have been entangled in line at least once. Most of the time the whales can free themselves; other times they cannot, and die, either by drowning or from infections brought on by the wounds the tightening lines caused.

This is bad because there aren't very many North Atlantic right whales left in the world; the entire population of 400 or so migrate into the Gulf of Maine each summer. It's also bad because right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. If the mortality rate of the North Atlantic right whale reaches an "unsustainable" level, major federal constraints are sure to follow.

Thus, the experiments conducted by Kraus and fellow whale researchers this summer in Cape Cod Bay under the auspices of the Bycatch Reduction consortium are important. The researchers want to learn if right whales have the visual ability to see the ropes and fishing gear they get entangled in and also to figure out how to make the rope more visible to those whales. The logic is that no right whale really wants to get all twisted up in ropes. If given a clear signal that the rope is there, they will avoid it.

But what does a right whale actually perceive down in the briny deep? Do they see colors as you and I might? Using PVC pipe instead of rope in order to avoid any chance entanglements, the scientists are situating white, red, green, black and glow-in-the-dark rope structures in the water near whales that are feeding in Cape Cod Bay and monitoring the animals' reactions.

The project just began in May, and no results are available. But it certainly has sparked my imagination. Pretend you are a right whale, as big as a school bus, migrating through cold Cape Cod Bay, gulping masses of sand lance and other small fish into your gullet on Stellwagen or other undersea banks. You rise and fall through the water column, sunning on the surface when tired, rubbing your body on the gravelly bottom when feeling a touch itchy. And then you see them, popsicle-colored tubes lined vertically before you. Do you swerve around the white, red, green and black PVC pipes only to find yourself inexplicably drawn to the glow-in-the-dark version? What colors of the Crayola box will keep a right whale from harm?"

{Press} Looking for Admiral

North Atlantic right whales are in trouble, but it’s hard to know what to do about it

Scienceline | Rose Eveleth | June 7, 2011

When Admiral surfaces, she looks like a submarine breaking the water, her giant girth pushing the deep blue ocean out of the way, almost bouncing out of the depths. That’s how Phillip Hamilton describes her, at least.

Admiral is a North Atlantic right whale. She was first sighted in 1979, the year before the New England Aquarium started cataloging every remaining whale in the population off the Northeastern coast of the United States. She is also one of the researchers’ favorites. “She’s just an amazing whale,” says Hamilton, who runs the right whale catalog. “She really is iconic,” agrees Amy Knowlton, a fellow researcher at the aquarium. Sadly, she’s iconic in another way too: After a bad entanglement with fishing lines, she hasn’t been seen since 2007. If she’s dead, her fate is representative of many of her species, which must contend with the dangers of boats and fishing gear.

Admiral and her fellow right whales are a remnant population, one decimated by whaling and struggling to overcome constant, often deadly human interactions. Today, there are only around 500 North Atlantic right whales left. That’s an uptick from a few decades ago, when there may have been as few as forty right whales in the North Atlantic, but it’s still too soon to celebrate. As the National Marine Fisheries Service tries to regulate ships and fishing gear — the two main causes of right whale mortality — the population is in a state of limbo that is both hard to study and hard to change. Each birth and death can alter the species’ chances of survival.

North Atlantic right whales were once hunted nearly to extinction. From the early 1600s to the 1800s, between 5,000 and 11,000 whales were taken out of the water. They were hunted for their fat and meat, and their namesake comes from being the “right” whale to kill because their bodies float to the surface rather than sinking. It helped that they were big, too; right whales can be up to seventy feet long and weigh seventy tons.

Genetic analysis of the remaining whales suggests that there are only five unrelated female lineages left. That could mean that the population at one point dwindled to just five living females, but it’s more likely that there were around 40, and that the whales in the current population happen to all be descendants of five of those 40 female whales.

That means that the surviving whales are not very diverse genetically. But no one really knows how this will affect the species’ chance of survival. Some experts think the smaller gene pool will make it harder for the whales to adapt to environmental changes. Others studies have suggested that the population had a tiny gene pool even before whaling ships arrived, which could explain their struggle to repopulate.

Finding out when this genetic bottleneck happened, and how it might affect right whales, is just one of the many questions researchers still have about these whales. Despite over thirty years of constant monitoring, there is still a huge amount scientists don’t know about them. They seem to disappear in the winter, and a third of the mothers are missing during the summer. Researchers don’t know how social they are, how important vocal communication is to them, or whether they’re getting enough food.

Answering those questions is difficult because the whales are hard to study. Researchers can’t out a right whale in a lab, so all their work has to be at sea. “We’re working on something that doesn’t want to be found, swims really fast and has a wide-ranging habitat,” says Aaron Rice, who studies animal acoustics at Cornell University.

New developments in technology have helped, by allowing researchers to study these whales without ever seeing them. Genetic testing can be done on free-floating feces, for example, that scientists find with the help of a deck-side, scat-sniffing dog. Whales can be jabbed with GPS tracking units that record their location and speed. The Boston Harbor is equipped with underwater recording devices that listen for right whales all day and night. Researchers hope that those, combined with a yearly aerial survey and constant boat trips to right whale habitats, will help them chip away at the secrets behind the species, and find out how it might be pulled from the brink of extinction.

Of course, right whales weren’t the only species targeted by the whaling industry. But while sperm whales and bowhead whales have steadily recovered, right whales have not. Unlike sperm and bowhead whales, right whales are still dying in large numbers from human interactions.

That’s because right whales’ lifestyle puts them at an increased risk. They tend to live within the top ten to twenty feet of the water column, says Leila Hatch, a marine ecologist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. “That means that they are within the strike zone of vessels for almost 100 percent of their life history. They basically evolved to do something that puts them in direct conflict with us all the time.” Boat captains often don’t know the whales are there until it’s too late, and boat strikes account for up to 40 percent of right whale deaths. While boats may only kill a few whales each year, the small right whale population makes each premature death dangerous for the survival of the species.

The same surface-swimming tendencies that put whales at risk of boat strikes can get them into trouble with commercial fishing lines, too. From scarring, researchers can tell that around 80 percent of the right whales alive right now have been stuck in fishing gear at some point in their lives, and the entanglements seem to have been getting worse over time.

Knowlton thinks this has something to do with new fishing products. In the early 1990s, rope manufacturers developed a new process to make their lines stronger than ever before. With the old ropes, the seventy-ton whales could break free. These new ropes might simply be too strong. Knowlton is using the right whale database to try to figure out if the uptick in entanglements does indeed correspond with the use of the new ropes. “In the eighties, when I started this project, we didn’t see the sort of complex entanglement” seen today, she says.

Recent regulations in the United States have helped. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration adopted a rule in 2008 that slowed ships down to ten knots – about twelve miles per hour – in right whale habitats like Boston Harbor and Cape Cod Bay. Fishermen are now required to switch from floating ground lines — the ropes that hold strings of traps together — to sinking ones, which float below the right whale’s preferred swimming space. But those rules are only in effect in United States waters, and they only apply until 2013. Then, researchers will have to convince policy makers to extend the regulations. In Canada, where the whales spend much of the summer, there are no speed restrictions at all.

Boat collisions and net entanglement are the pressures we know the most about, but they’re not the only things that can kill right whales. In the 1990s, right whale mothers nearly stopped having calves. Only one calf was born in 2000. Whales started showing up with lesions all over their bodies. They were getting skinny. No one really knows why. It could have been a lack of food, or an outbreak of a disease, or some other stressor from the environment — or a combination of the three. Slowly, the whales got better, and started having more calves, but the cause of the sudden deterioration is still a mystery. For the best-studied whale species in the world, there are still plenty of unknowns.

One of those unknowns is Admiral’s fate. Since her first sighting, she has been seen 232 times. But since her entanglement in fishing gear, sightings dropped off. When researchers did see her, she looked pretty beat up. No one has seen her at all since 2007, and many are worried she may have died from her injuries.

When any whale dies, it’s not just a number in a catalog. Most of the people who have been studying right whales have been at it for 25 to 30 years. They know every whale by sight, from Admiral to Millipede to Zipper. “I’ve spent half my life studying this population,” says Knowlton. “You get to know their families and who’s related to who, and you see them in all these different activities.”

Every winter, during calving season, the researchers have a pool to try to guess how many calves will be born that year. For the past few years, the population has been increasing slowly. Nineteen calves were born last year. Researchers are hoping that the combination of slower boats and new fishing techniques will help this trend continue. “This past decade was the first decade of good news of three decades of doing this work,” says Hamilton. “It’s the first little bit of hope, frankly.”

But while the numbers are improving, it’s not quite time to let the whales fend for themselves. “I don’t think we can celebrate yet,” says Knowlton. Ships are still striking and killing whales. Fishing gear is still entangling them. “I think we have to keep our guard up, stay very vigilant,” she says, “because if we drop our vigilance, then our population could still fail to survive.”

Monday, June 06, 2011

{Inspiration} Do whales smell krill?

A recent article published in Marine Mammal Science presents evidence that bowhead whales have a sense of smell, and a fairly well-developed sense of smell at that! The authors suggest that the whales may use olfaction to detect the krill on which they feed. Given that they are closely related to bowheads, it makes me wonder (again) whether or not right whales may be using their sense of smell to locate widely dispersed prey patches? Hmmm...

Olfaction and brain size in the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) - Thewissen - 2010 - Marine Mammal Science - Wiley Online Library


"Although there are several isolated references to the olfactory anatomy of mysticetes, it is usually thought that olfaction is rudimentary in this group. We investigated the olfactory anatomy of bowhead whales and found that these whales have a cribriform plate and small, but histologically complex olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb makes up approximately 0.13% of brain weight, unlike odontocetes where this structure is absent. We also determined that 51% of olfactory receptor genes were intact, unlike odontocetes, where this number is less than 25%. This suggests that bowheads have a sense of smell, and we speculate that they may use this to find aggregations of krill on which they feed."