Tuesday, October 11, 2011

{Press} Right whales still creatures of mystery

The Chronicle Herald.ca | Davene Jeffrey | October 7, 2011

"Researchers have been studying North American right whales for the past 30 years but much about the mammoth mammals remains a mystery.

One-quarter of the world’s population of 475 North American right whales leave the warm waters off Florida every spring and disappear somewhere into the North Atlantic, says Scott Kraus, the New England Aquarium’s vice-president of research.

"These animals are just missing."

Another quarter veer slightly east on their seasonal swim up the Eastern Seaboard and spend their summers in an area of the ocean called the Roseway Basin, about 65 kilometres south of the southern tip of Nova Scotia.

And about half of them regularly summer in the Bay of Fundy.

Last week researchers counted about 60 in one day.

Last year was different. Most of them didn’t show up. Researchers only counted about 50 whales in the bay that entire season.

"It’s looking like last year was just an anomaly," said longtime researcher Moira Brown, who is also based at the aquarium.

Other strange happenings in the whale world occurred in the bay in 2010 as well.

"For the first time in our 32-year study, we had sperm whales, quite a few of them, seven or eight of them. In the last 30 years, we’ve seen two sperm whales in the Bay of Fundy," Kraus said.

Why sperm whales suddenly showed up is a head-scratcher for the marine biologists, although Kraus suggests they might have been chasing squid.

Some people speculate the presence of the sperm whales could explain why the right whales went elsewhere, Kraus said.

Sperm whales make very loud echolocation clicks and "maybe that is just annoying to everybody else," he said. "We really have no idea."

While the return of the right whales to the Bay of Fundy this year is good news for researchers, the whales do appear to be shifting their travel trends.

In the ’90s, the whales typically summered in the bay between July and mid-October, but "over the last 10 or 15 years we’ve see this shift," Kraus said. "We hardly ever see any right whales in July any more and they’ve moved much later in the season. Even this year, in August we didn’t have a whole lot of whales but then they really piled in in September."

The scientists have been looking at links between climate change and whale movement but with so many unknowns, Kraus said drawing any sort of conclusions is very tricky.

What they do know for sure is that over the past decade, the right whale has experienced a slight population growth of about one per cent a year.

Two Canadian whale preservation measures have had great success, Kraus said.

Shipping lanes changes in the Bay of Fundy and near Roseway Basin have decreased the number of whale-ship collisions in Canadian waters by between 80 and 90 per cent, Kraus said.

But North Atlantic whales are still struggling for survival with the commercial fishery, said Brown

"About 82 per cent of whales have scars on their body from entanglements with fishing gear," she said.

In Canada, there has been very little movement on part of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to regulate the fishery, Kraus said.

However, in the United States "there’s a lot of effort but we’re not seeing much success either," he said.

( djeffrey@herald.ca)"

Monday, October 10, 2011

{Training} NOAA U Fish

I spent a week in Silver Springs, Maryland taking a course designed for new NOAA employees. Drinking the NOAA kool-aid...

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

{Press} Right whale population up in Bay of Fundy

"The population of North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy is continuing to improve as a series of measures seems to be protecting the species, according to a marine biologist.

Moira Brown, a marine biologist with the New England Aquarium, said 60 whales were counted in the Bay of Fundy on one day in mid-September, which is more than her team counted all season last year.

Brown said efforts, like moving shipping lanes out of the whales migratory paths have cut down on collisions with ships by 90 per cent, helping to bring right whale populations back from the brink of extinction.

“In the big picture, the population is starting to increase a little bit,” Brown said.

“It's small, it's about two per cent a year — sort of like interest rates at the bank right now — but that's a much better picture than 10 years ago.”

Moira Brown, a marine biologist with the New England Aquarium, said the right whale population has increased since reforms to shipping lanes were introduced in 2003. Moira Brown, a marine biologist with the New England Aquarium, said the right whale population has increased since reforms to shipping lanes were introduced in 2003. CBCBrown has been going to Lubec, Maine, every summer for 32 years to study right whales in the Bay of Fundy.

Right whales can be 16 metres in length and weigh up to 40,000 kilograms. They were hunted extensively in previous centuries and that drove the number of whales down to a few dozen when they were finally put on an endangered list.

The right whale population is now estimated to be between 400 and 500.

Researchers say 21 right whale calves survived their trip to the Bay of Fundy from Florida this season.
Bay of Fundy a 'safer place for right whales'

Brown said the decision to shift the shipping routes in the Bay of Fundy has been a significant factor in helping to protect the whales.

"So now, the Bay of Fundy, the high concentration area for right whales is a lot safer place for right whales,” she said.

“We've reduced the risk of vessel collisions substantially by 90 per cent and it's probably a lot quieter too because the ships are travelling further to the east."

Despite the measures, right whales continue to have run-ins with fishing boats in the bay. There are other measures that could be taken to further protect the species.

Amy Knowlton, a marine biologist with the New England Aquarium, said Canada needs to join American states that are starting to legislate the design and location of fishing nets and lines in the region.

The entanglement issue is still a huge problem,” Knowlton said.

“We know we lost two individuals this winter from entanglement, we have another five or six animals carrying gear.”