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."

No comments: