Endangered North Atlantic right whales take a stand on Cape Cod

Provincetown (United States) (AFP) – After many hours of scouring Cape Cod Bay and a few false alarms, people aboard the research vessel Shearwater on a bright April day make their first sighting: three North Atlantic right whales, including a rare pair mother-calf.

The captain cuts the engines and a trio of marine biologists swoop in, quickly snapping pictures and noting marks that can be used to identify individual animals and track injuries – a vital part of conservation efforts for a species believed to number 336 members.

While the whaling that drove them to near extinction has long been banned, unintentional ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear are today the main threats to Eubalaena glacialis, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Approaching 60 feet long and weighing over 70 tons, the North Atlantic right whale is the third largest whale in existence. Their lifespan is similar to that of humans, with individuals living up to a century.

“Unfortunately, since 2010 their population has been declining,” says Christy Hudak, leader of the Center for Coastal Studies expedition that set out from Provincetown, a historic New England fishing town now popular for whale-watching. whales and gay tourism.

“We’re trying to get the word out about these amazing creatures and how keystone they are in the circle of life.”

The CCS crew coordinates with an aerial survey plane, while a ship from another research group flies mini-drones equipped with cameras above the whales as part of a study on the impact of rope tangles on their growth rate.

Despite strict vessel speed limits of 10 knots in some protected areas and new rules introduced by authorities to limit the number of ropes between buoys and crab and lobster traps on the seabed, advocates of the environment fear that this is not enough.

The problems are compounded by climate change: as the waters of the North Atlantic warm, a tiny oil-rich crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus, the whales’ main food resource, is becoming scarce in their habitat, which extends from the Florida in Canada.

Cape Cod Bay does not warm as quickly as whales’ more northerly waters in the Gulf of Maine, and as a result, it is here, in their traditional feeding and nursing grounds, that the sea giants are now more often spotted.

During a right whale research expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01) in Cape Cod Bay, a rare mother-calf pair was spotted Joseph PreziosoAFP

Besides photography and detailed note-taking, the crew also conducts plankton surveys: casting nets and using water pumps to take samples at various depths for laboratory analysis.

Knowing the composition and density of these zooplankton helps scientists predict peak arrivals and departures of whales.

The “right” whale to hunt

Right whales have been the favored prey of commercial hunters for more than a millennium – by the Vikings, the Basques, the English, the Dutch and finally the Americans – who sought their blubber for whale oil and their baleen, qu they use to filter their food, as a strong and flexible material used in the pre-plastic era.

Sara Pokelwaldt, 23, photographs a right whale during a research expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01) in Cape Cod Bay
Sara Pokelwaldt, 23, photographs a right whale during a research expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01) in Cape Cod Bay Joseph PreziosoAFP

According to David Laist, author of a book on the species, their numbers before commercial hunting ranged up to 20,000, but by the start of the 20th century the species was depleted.

There was only one reliable sighting anywhere in the North Atlantic between the mid-1920s and 1950s, writes Laist.

“Early whalers considered them the right whale to catch because they were so valuable, big thick layers of blubber that produced oil that was used in lamps, says CCS founder Charles “Stormy.” Mayo, explaining the name.

A baby boom in the 2000s led to a recent peak of over 483 animals in 2010, but the numbers are once again in decline – and in 2017 the species was rocked by mass mortality due to a move to new feeding grounds. .

“Fourteen right whales died in a very short time, because they moved into an area of ​​the Gulf of St. Lawrence that was previously unknown and unmanaged,” he said. .

This movement due to dwindling prey abundance elsewhere appears to have been caused by climate change and has left the whales highly vulnerable to collisions and rope kills.

And since the population is already so depleted, even a few deaths are enough to trigger a downward spiral, said Mayo, who was part of the first team to disentangle a whale in 1984. Mayo’s own father had hunted pilot whales, and their family has lived in the area since the 1600s.

The calving rate of whales in its southern waters is also falling.

Intern Emily Patrick, 22, uses a special net to collect plankton and zooplankton during the expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01)
Intern Emily Patrick, 22, uses a special net to collect plankton and zooplankton during the expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01) Joseph PreziosoAFP

While three years is considered a normal birth interval, the current average is three to six years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Stressors placed on women – including non-fatal rope entanglements and ocean-going noise from human activities – are thought to be behind the steep decline.

– Mischievous calf and whale party –

Right whales are distinctive for their stocky, black appearance without a dorsal fin, as well as their heads adorned with knobby patches of rough skin called callosities, which are stained white by the tiny “whale lice” (cyamides) that cling to their hosts in what is considered a symbiotic relationship.

Marine biologist Christy Hudak, 46, uses binoculars to search for whales during the expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01) in Cape Cod Bay
Marine biologist Christy Hudak, 46, uses binoculars to search for whales during the expedition with the Center for Coastal Studies (NOAA permit 25740-01) in Cape Cod Bay Joseph PreziosoAFP

Following advice relayed by their colleagues in the air, the R/V Shearwater finds more right whales, including a playful calf mimicking its mother, and a group that biologists call an active group on the surface – an opportunity to socialize.

The whales “gather, roll and touch each other. The main thing is to mate, but also to interact with other right whales. It’s not always about sex,” says Hudak.

Back on land, Hudak said she was encouraged by what she saw during the day: a total of 10 right whales, two mother-calf pairs and the social group, the “piece de resistance”.

The long-term future of the species is far from certain, but there is hope.

Technologies are being tested to reduce tangles – from weak ropes that break more easily to ropeless fishing traps that use remote-controlled floats to ascend by themselves.

Charles
Charles “Stormy” Mayo’s family has lived in the area since the 1600s; the founder of the Center for Coastal Studies was part of the first team to disentangle a whale Joseph PreziosoAFP

Other ideas include deploying more acoustic monitoring devices on buoys to better track whale movements and respond quickly with vessel speed limits in these areas.

It’s also vital, Hudak said, to increase public awareness and desire to protect the creatures.

The ship’s spotter, Sarah Pokelwaldt, a recent graduate doing an internship at CCS, said she was blown away by what was her first encounter with calves.

“Being able to see the babies holds great promise for the work we do. It’s really rewarding to see,” she said.

About Opal Jones

Check Also

Population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals highest in 2 decades

HONOLULU— The population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals has surpassed a level not seen in …