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Whale Watchers

Jun 09, 2014 10:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Photo by Helen Bailey

By Barbara Pash

The days of “Moby Dick” are gone.

The era of whaling ships leaving from New England ports to hunt these marine mammals almost to extinction is over.

But that doesn’t mean these iconic creatures of the deep are without danger from, in scientific jargon, “whale-human interaction.”

In modern times, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two leading causes of whale deaths. On both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, efforts are underway to monitor and protect whales with everything from underwater robots and “listening” buoys to habitat models on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website.

Maryland’s Eye on Pacific Whales

Image titleDr. Helen Bailey, research assistant professor of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, in Solomons, Md., coordinates WhaleWatch, a three-year long project that runs through this year.

“I make sure we are providing the information they need,” Bailey, a marine mammal expert, says of the funding partners, a list that includes the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and Smithsonian Institution Climate and Biological Response Program.

Thanks to their $500,000 grant, NOAA, University of Maryland, and Oregon State University developed the project. The focus is on four of the largest of the 20 whale species that live in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast.

The four species—blue, fin, humpback, and gray—were chosen for specific reasons.

For a start, the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 gives NOAA responsibility for protecting endangered whales. Blue, fin, and humpback whales are on the national and international endangered species lists. For another, Oregon State University researchers, led by Dr. Bruce Mate, the guru of whale tagging, have been monitoring blue whales since the 1990s and have established a technique for doing so. Mate is director and chair of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

Says Bailey, “The idea is to expand Oregon State’s study—the first of its kind—to other species and to human impact.”

On the west coast, the main concern among conservationists is the blue whale, which numbers under 2,500. Numbers are small for the fin whale, about 3,000, and humpback whale, about 2,000, as well.

Gray whales number about 19,000 but, because of their long migration from Alaska to Mexico, they are the most common victims of ship strikes and entanglement, Bailey says, within thick fishing lines that get wrapped around noses and tails.

WhaleWatch uses satellite tracking and physical measures like water temperature, water movement, plankton productivity, and digital maps of the sea floor. The result is a snapshot of whale movement.

Whales gather consistently and predictably year after year at certain “hot spots,” where they feed for several days before moving to another area. Hot spots are caused by ocean currents circulating in a way that leads to plankton bloom and an abundance of krill, a small shrimp-like animal that is a favorite food.

By next year, WhaleWatch’s research data will be turned into a habitat model of the four whale species’ current and future locations. The model will be posted and automatically updated on NOAA’s website—a real-time electronic map to avoid whales.

Bailey says the shipping and fishing industries have been asking for this kind of information. “They don’t want ship strikes or fishing line entanglements either. It can mean costly repairs or net replacement,” she says, not to mention unpleasant publicity from the small but vocal conservation community.

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Oregon State’s Bruce Mate puts the value of WhaleWatch another way. The project doesn’t create data. Rather, it takes existing data on whale behavior and evaluates the interaction with human activities like shipping and fishing.

But, just having the data is important. “Options may arise that wouldn’t have been thought of without the data,” he says.

Monitoring In The Atlantic

As a matter of fact, that is exactly what happened a decade ago, when scientists used data on the North Atlantic Right Whale to change long-established shipping lanes.

If blue whales are the main concern on the west coast, the right whale holds that distinction on the east coast. Indeed, with fewer than 450 right whales left, some scientists argue that the species isn’t close to extinction—it already is extinct.

Right whales have winter calving and nursery areas off the southeastern U.S., then migrate to summer feeding grounds off New England and the Bay of Fundy, off Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.

In the 1990s, three separate ship strikes in the Bay of Fundy killed right whales, damaged ships, and raised insurance coverage issues. Scientists from the New England Aquarium, Oregon State University, and Canada collected data that showed right whales stayed in specific areas of the bay.

In 2003, data in hand, they successfully persuaded the International Maritime Organization to relocate a mandated shipping lane for large vessels like tankers, container ships, and cruise ships. The move reduced the probability of ship strikes in the bay by up to 80 percent.

On the east coast, besides the right whale, other large species being monitored are the humpback, fin, sei, and minke. The first two are on endangered species lists.

Though rare in Maryland waters, sightings do occur. In June 2010, numerous sightings of a large whale in Ocean City were reported to the National Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program. Several photographs—one taken of the whale breaking the water’s surface just 50 yards off the beach at 42nd Street allowed scientists to indentify it as a humpback whale. Similar sightings were reported during the 2013 beach season as well.

To learn more about whale migrations, Dr. Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist and associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, launched the first-ever underwater robot—officially, an unmanned underwater glider—with a global positioning unit and computer onboard in 2012.

“Not only did it locate a pod of whales but correctly identified them as right whales,” Baumgartner says of the acoustic monitoring device.

Another high-tech acoustic monitoring device is an electronic “listening” buoy that a consortium of scientists, including Woods Hole, has set up along the shipping lanes of Boston harbor and other sites on the east coast. The buoys capture whale sounds and transmit them to an iPad application called WhaleALERT.

This December, NOAA Fisheries Services, headquartered in Silver Spring, expects to make permanent rules that were instituted in 2008 to reduce the number of collisions between ships and right whales.

The rules modify shipping routes and restrict ship speed during certain times and locations, including right whales’ migration along the mid-Atlantic coast. The result has been an 80 to 90 percent reduction in ship strikes.

“We closely monitor actions [dealing with] right whales. These are federal regulations and they are enforced, with fines up to $50,000,” says NOAA Fisheries’ Gregory Silber.

NOAA Fisheries also has rules dealing with fishing gear entanglement for right, humpback, fin, sei, and minke whales.

According to Silber, the right whale population appears to be on the rebound, growing by more than two percent per year over the last five years.

“The rules are having an effect,” he says.


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Want to listen to North Atlantic Right Whales? 
Visit the website
and get whale calls and locations in real time.