Thursday, September 29, 2011

{Press} Number of right whales up in Bay of Fundy

Telegraph Journal | John Chilibeck and Chris Morris | September 26, 2011


"On the odd day when the curtain of fog has lifted on the Bay of Fundy over the last two months, whale researchers have been thrilled with what they've seen.

A research team led by Moira Brown, right, based out of Lubec, Maine, has counted more than 140 whales in the bay since it began looking on Aug. 1, including 11 mother-calf pairs.

The North Atlantic right whale has had a comeback after a dismal showing last season.

"Last year was terrible - we counted only 55 whales the whole season," said veteran researcher Moira Brown late last week. "And when we were out last Sunday and Monday,
the weather was good for two days, which is a miracle this year, and we saw more than 55 whales in those two days."

All told, her research team based out of Lubec, Maine, have counted more than 140 whales in the bay since they began looking on Aug. 1, including 11 mother-calf pairs.

"That's a great number. To be able to count that many individuals in a two-month whale season and know that the mothers are still alive and the calves have made it, all the way from Florida to the Bay of Fundy, that's a good field season for us."

It's by no means a record in the 32 years scientists have been counting the whales, which swim up every season from their southern calving grounds, but it is part of a positive trend. A little over a decade ago, Brown was depressed to report that the right whale population was decreasing by 2.5 per cent a year, with females giving birth to only 11 calves on average between December and March off of Florida.

The last decade has seen a turnaround, with an average of 22 calves born each year. This year wasn't far off the mark with 21 calves born - only one has died so far that researchers know of and they don't expect to see or count every one of them in the bay this season. The population of the rarest of all large whale species is now on the rebound, going up by two per cent a year.

Considering that right whales were nearly driven to extinction at the dawn of the 20th century - they were a favourite target because they were slow and so full of blubber that they floated to the surface after they were harpooned - scientists such as Brown are fairly optimistic. From only perhaps a dozen a century ago, the animals are now believed to number between 400 and 500.

The whales have more protection from ship strikes than they've ever had. In 2003, Brown and her colleagues at the New England Aquarium in Boston successfully convinced the International Maritime Organization to change shipping lanes, the first time they were ever amended to avoid an endangered marine species.

Brown said thanks to funding partners such as Irving Oil and the Island Foundation in Marion, Mass., research and education efforts are having an impact.

However, the whales are still getting tangled in fishing gear. About three-quarters of the whales show evidence of scarring, which isn't always a problem, but can be deadly if the ropes entangle a fin or mouth. When infections take hold, the creatures can have difficulty swimming or eating.

"We've seen some whales this year with some pretty severe scarring with encounters with fishing gear, and again, that happens throughout their range. And it's such a difficult problem. We've been trying to deal with this problem since 1996, and that's a fairly long time now, and there's no silver bullet answer. And so we continue to struggle with that one."

Brown said last year's anomaly of fewer whales spotted could be explained by oceanographers. In 2010, fresher water came from the Arctic on the Labrador current and warmer water came in from the Gulf stream. The mix in the Gulf of Maine disrupted the normal plankton distribution, and the whales sought their favourite food elsewhere.

If the whales keep procreating at the current rate, Brown said the population could double in 35-odd years.

"I don't think we'll see 1,000 right whales while I'm alive, but the next generation should, if we keep going this way," she said. "I wouldn't have been able to say that five years ago. So the population is inching up and as long as the whales do their part and keep having babies, and the conservation efforts work and in the next few years we figure out how to stop entanglements in fishing gear, humans are doing a pretty good job to change the outcome for an endangered species."

{Press} Whale skull found in Brewster

Cape Cod Times | Eric Williams | September 22, 2011

"BREWSTER — Someone call Indiana Jones! A giant, mysterious whale skull has been unearthed near Ellis Landing Beach.

"We're channeling our inner archaeologists, which is something we've never done before," said Brian Sharp, stranding coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
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While IFAW is better known for rescuing live marine mammals, they were called in to exhume the approximately 6-foot-long chunk of what is believed to be a right whale skull.

The skull was discovered Tuesday, when grounds crew members from the nearby Ocean Edge Resort attempted to remove what they thought was a small rock protruding from the sand, according to Sharp. Turns out, they had a whale by the skull. And a day later, three shovel-wielding IFAW staffers were hip-deep in a sand crater, trying to decipher a crumbling cranium.

The skull is believed to weigh about 400 pounds and is in fragile condition because of its exposure to water. The skull sits face-down in the sand, and parts of it appear to be missing, including the jaw bones.

Sharp said IFAW officials have consulted with staff at the New England Aquarium to see whether a whale stranding had occurred in the area over the past few decades. Nothing popped up immediately, leading Sharp to guess that the skull possibly dates from before 1974.

An extraction effort will likely be attempted this morning, with help from the town of Brewster, an IFAW spokeswoman said.

Once the skull is liberated, the "CSI" work can begin. The goal will be to "extract some DNA and be able to confirm that it is a right whale, and also potentially find out the lineage of this animal, since so much is known about right whale genetics," Sharp said.

"Maybe it will get matched up to some of the right whales that we currently have visiting us in the wintertime," he said."

{Press} Whale skull unearthed in Brewster

Cape Cod Times | Eric Williams | September 21, 2011

"BREWSTER — International Fund for Animal Welfare officials have uncovered what they believe is the skull of a North Atlantic right whale on Ellis Landing Beach today.

The large bone was discovered yesterday by a grounds crew from the nearby Ocean Edge Resort, according to IFAW officials. The resort crew thought the skull was a rock protruding from the sand that posed a toe-stubbing hazard to beachgoers. When the crew members attempted to remove it, however, they found there was much more below the surface and that it was not a rock.

IFAW and Brewster town officials were notified and are using shovels to dig around the bony structure, which appears to be 6-feet wide and 2 1/2-feet tall. At noon, it was unclear how much more of the skull was still buried under the sand. The skull showed signs of deterioration under the waterline, an IFAW official at the scene said.

Town of Brewster officials are still trying to figure out if they can get it off the beach today and where it would be taken. Wherever it ends up, scientists will study the skull and attempt to determine the identify of the whale and its lineage. Whales are identified by their flukes.

North Atlantic right whales are on the federal endangered species list. There are only about 300 to 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the Atlantic."


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editors note:

Right whales are not identified by their flukes but rather by the pattern of callosity on their heads along with other scars and identifiable marks.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

{Press} Interactive Display Shows Where and When Right Whales Are Sighted

NOAA Fisheries Service | Shelley Dawicki | September 15, 2011

"An interactive visual display of North Atlantic Right Whale sightings is now available and the data easily accessible, thanks to a Google Earth interface with a live connection to the NEFSC’s Oracle database. Visitors interested in knowing where and when sightings have occurred can display the Center’s North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey and Sighting Advisory System data in map or table format over different time periods. A click on the whale tale icon on the map, for example, will provide information about that particular sighting, or display the data in table form. The brainchild of aerial survey team leader Tim Cole of the Center’s Protected Species Branch, the interactive visual display is a collaboration between Christin Khan and Beth Josephson of the Protected Species Branch, and Kurt Schwehr at the NOAA Joint Hydrographic Center/Visualization Lab at the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. The interactive display, which also highlights seasonal management areas and provides information for mariners and how to report right whale sightings, will hopefully raise awareness of the whereabouts of right whales throughout the year and support efforts to reduce the threat of ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear, the most common human causes of serious injury and death for this critically endangered population."

The link is: http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/psb/surveys/SASInteractive2.html

Saturday, September 10, 2011

{Press} DNR to use site off Brunswick's waterfront for whale necropsies

Jacksonville.com | Mike Morrison | September 9, 2011

"BRUNSWICK - A sandy beach across the East River from downtown will be the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ staging area for whale necropsies.

With the northern right whale migration nearing to winter calving waters off South Georgia and North Florida, it’s important to have a site designated for safety as well as scientific reasons, DNR wildlife biologist Clay George said Wednesday night.

George, from the Wildlife Resources Division office off the Brunswick River, asked the City Commission for permission to use a city-owned causeway to access the site on Andrews Island. The island itself is controlled by the Georgia Department of Transportation and is used as a dump site for dredge spoil.

The commission tentatively agreed, subject to the implementation of a memorandum of understanding between the two parties and other involved agencies and individuals.

“Northern right whales are one of the most endangered animals in the world,” George said. “They migrate in our coastal waters to their calving grounds. Every three or four years, one is found floating offshore.”

If left floating, the whale carcasses can be a hazard to navigation or wash up on a beach, he said.

Fewer than 400 of the endangered mammals are left in the North Atlantic.

They are massive creatures, reaching 55 feet and weighing as much as 115 tons. Slow and full of blubber, whalers hunted them to near-extinction more than a century ago. Now, they are subject to killing strikes from the large ships that ply the East Coast.

Should one be found dead off Brunswick, the carcass would be towed inshore, passing under the Sidney Lanier Bridge on its way to the sandy area across from Mary Ross Park in downtown Brunswick.

The DNR would deliver heavy equipment across the causeway to the site, which would be used to haul the carcass out of the water for dissection and examination to determine the cause of death, George said.

After conducting an extensive survey of the area, the DNR identified Andrews Island as the only appropriate site.

The process of examining and disposing of a whale carcass would span three days, George said. On the first day, the whale would be towed to the site to site. On the second day, it would be hauled out of the water and examined before being buried on the island. On the third day, the site would be cleaned up and the heavy equipment removed.

“Within a week, there would be no signs of the operation remaining,” George said.

The operation and cleanup would be paid for by the DNR, George said.

The commission agreed to the request without discussion, except to verify the extent of the city’s involvement.

Commissioner Cornell Harvey wanted and received assurances the city’s only involvement would be in providing access to the causeway to Andrews Island."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

{Press} Waters around New Brunswick merit protection, new study says

Daily Gleaner | Sabrina Doyle | September 7, 2011

"The waters around New Brunswick and along the northeast American coastline have been cited in a new study as being among the top nine marine places in the world that merit protection.

The study criteria looked at how many marine mammal species are there, how rare they are, and how at risk they are from human influence.

While 20 sites were highlighted worldwide, the report's authors determined that by preserving just 2.5 per cent of the ocean, they could protect the vast majority of marine mammal species.

"We're in a very important species extinction crisis," researcher Gerardo Ceballos said in a telephone interview.

Like all the hot spots, eastern Canada is at a medium to high level of dangerous human impact, Ceballos said. He and Sandra Pompa Mansilla co-authored the study from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

They worked on the study for four years with a fellow researcher at Stanford University and published the paper in the Aug. 16 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key sites seem to congregate in upwelling oceanic areas, where cold currents meet warm ones. These often produce areas of high primary production, which are good feeding grounds for marine mammals.

Southern New Brunswick, which is known for its whale-watching industry, serves as the summer home of the right whale, an endangered species that was pinpointed as one of the animals of particular concern by the scientists. Other species frequenting the Fundy area are the minke whale, the humpback whale, the finback whale and white-beaked Dolphins, among other species.

Although they are known to visit, it's considered rare to see a blue whale, sperm whale, killer whale or beluga whale.

Marine mammals provide some of the best-known cases of population and species extinction through overexploitation, the study states.

For the North Atlantic, the study lists the whale-watching industry, toxic waste dumping and vessel collisions with whales as the most dangerous threats to the rich marine population in the North Atlantic.

The researchers are the first to combine various habitat maps of marine mammals around the world into an all-inclusive map showing the hot spots, Mansilla said from her university office in Mexico.

But Ceballos said their study "is a guideline for some of the most important places ... but it doesn't mean that the rest of the areas shouldn't be taken into account."

The other nine sites are located off the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, northwestern Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Of the 129 species of marine mammals on Earth, including seals, dolphins and polar bears, approximately 25 per cent are facing extinction, the study said, ranging from being considered vulnerable to critically endangered."

Monday, September 05, 2011

{Press} Endangered right whales produce louder calls in noisier environments

Science 2.0 | Caitlin Kight | September 4, 2011

Anthropogenic noise has been studied not only in terrestrial habitats, but also in aquatic environments, where it can disrupt communication of a number of organisms, including fish, crustaceans, dolphins, and whales. A recent study by collaborators at Penn State University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Duke University has demonstrated, for the first time, that individual North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) adjust the amplitude of their calls in response to ambient noise levels.

These endangered whales live in the coastal waters of the eastern US and communicate using low-frequency (50-400 Hz) sounds that can be masked by noise from the high levels of commercial, naval, and recreational ship traffic found throughout their habitats. Impaired vocal communication can impact mating and feeding behaviors, increase stress levels, and possibly decrease reproductive success, all of which would be particularly problematic in a species whose population numbers are already dangerously low.

Researchers cornered whales after they swam into the Bay of Fundy, where they ultimately fitted 7 females and 7 males with suction cup tags containing acoustic recording devices. These yielded a total of 107 calls that could be analyzed. The data indicated that whales spent time in waters with ambient noise levels ranging from 92-143 dB (don't be surprised if that seems excessive--aquatic noise levels are generally higher than terrestrial ones because they are calculated in a way that takes into account differences in sound propagation in water versus air). The habitats were dominated by noise below 400 Hz--in other words, the very same frequency bandwidth used by calling whales.

For all types of calls, the whales increased the amplitudes of their vocalizations as ambient noise levels increased. Thus, not only were they aware of differences in environmental conditions, but they also actively adjusted in order to compensate. This pattern was observed in both sexes and across all age groups. Interestingly, and contrary to some previous research, the whales did not change the frequency characteristics of their vocalizations. The authors suggest that this is because whales use amplitude adjustments as a short-term, immediate response to noise, but, over time, gradually learn to manipulate frequency characteristics, as well.

For now, it appears that these vocal manipulations are sufficient to maintain the whales' signal-to-noise ratios in human-disturbed environments. However, it is unknown whether the whales use even louder habitats where, perhaps, they are no longer able to combat the noise. Calling at such a high amplitude may be energetically demanding, or may make the whales more obvious when they would rather remain hidden; the researchers hope to examine these fitness implications in future research."

{Press} North Atlantic Right Whales Need To Watch Where They Eat

Science 2.0 | Caitlin Kight | September 4, 2011

"Each spring, North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) migrate through the waters of the Cape Cod Bay (CCB), where they feed on aggregations of zooplankton near the surface of the water. Last year, almost half the world's population of this species could be found in the CCB, where these critically endangered animals are at risk of being hit by ships.

Collaborators from Pennsylvania State University, Stony Brook University, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary recently performed a study to investigate whether the whales' foraging ecology increases the likelihood that they will experience a collision with passing vessels. To do this, they utilized dive data from suction cup archival recording tags that had been attached to 13 whales. This provided a detailed record of how often the whales dived and how far they went. The researchers also sampled zooplankton, the whales' prey, in order to see how many organisms were in the water, and whether they aggregated in the same places where the whales were spending most of their time.

(The Cape Cod Bay)

Zooplankton were highly concentrated in the upper 5 m of the water in aggregations that often covered multiple square kilometers and lasted for several hours. Unsurprisingly, whales were found to spend the majority of their time between 0.5 and 2.5 m below the water's surface, indicating that they most likely were following their food. Unfortunately, whales are difficult to see at this depth, making them particularly vulnerable to collisions with vessels of a range of sizes.

(The zooplankton Calanus finmarchicus, the most common species of whale prey sampled during the study.)

Along the Massachusetts coastline, a network of real-time passive acoustic buoys is used to monitor whale activity. However, these only work when the whales vocalize, which the researchers did not observe them doing throughout the course of the study. This means that an alternative monitoring technique--such as using echosounders to detect zooplankton and predict where the whales will be--may be necessary to protect these magnificent marine mammals.

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Parks, S.E., Warren, J.D., Stamieszkin, K., Mayo, C.A., and Wiley, D. 2011. Dangerous dining: surface foraging of North Atlantic right whales increases risk of vessel collisions. Biology Letters, online advance publication."