Right whale migrations in the east

Fri, 04/24/2020 - 11:00am
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“There has only been one right whale reported so far this year off Rhode Island: south of Sakonnet Point on Jan 22.”

This is according to Robert Kenney, Emeritus Marine Research Scientist and Adjunct Professor in residence at the University of Rhode Island, who is one of the founders of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The NARWC focuses on the conservation and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered whale population found off the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada. North Atlantic right whales have been reported in Block Island waters in the past, traveling from southern waters off Florida and Georgia, into Cape Cod Bay and eventually up to Canadian waters.

“I maintain the collaborative database for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium... so I’m always ready to add opportunistic sightings from any source (all species, not just right whales). All I need is date, location, species, and how many, with some descriptive information to back up species identifications,” said Kenney.

North Atlantic right whales have smooth, black bodies; some have white belly patches. They have a large head with a strongly arched mouth line, and square-shaped flippers. These whales are active at the surface, exhibiting such social behaviors as breaching and lobtailing, where they throw their bodies and tails out of the water. There is no dorsal fin found on their backs, but they do have large white callosities on their heads, which helps identify the whales.

While right whales can be spotted from the shore, more advanced scientific studies have identified right whales from aerial views. Amy James, the Flight Coordinator for the Right Whale Ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies, shared her observations on North Atlantic right whales and their migration patterns:

“January through mid-May is the primary time that the right whales are feeding throughout the southern Gulf of Maine. Close to shore areas tend to be in Cape Cod Bay, but aggregations are moving between Nantucket shoaling areas through the Great South Channel and throughout Massachusetts Bay with regularity as they feed,” said James.

North Atlantic right whales are common victims of ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, and these threats continue to jeopardize their population status. During the planning stages of the Block Island Wind Farm, North Atlantic right whales’ routes were taken into consideration, to avoid disturbing their space and to ensure they wouldn’t be harmed. As of today, there are 409 North Atlantic Right whales left in the world; a slow moving species in migration, and they have slow reproductive rates. Once hunted in the 1600s, their population levels were drastically affected by humans’ impacts, and continue to be impacted by human activities. To help in conserving this fragile species, North Atlantic right whale organizations stress the importance in reporting right whale sightings.

“If you want to look at recent reports up and down the entire East Coast, the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole maintains a “Right Whale Sighting Advisory System” with an interactive on-line map that is updated in near real time. There is also a Whale Alert app for smart phones that allows reporting of sightings,” said Kenney.

Online databases such as the Right Whale Sighting Advisory System, and the WhaleMap, show current sightings of North Atlantic Right whales in United States and Canadian waters. The Whale Alert app helps reduce the chances of ship strikes by large vessels, revealing the whales’ “safety zones”, as well as how to report and follow marine vessel guidelines.

“If you see any yourself, you can report location, date and time to NOAA at 866-755-6622. Photos are always helpful. Depending on quality and distance, if you submit them to us, we would try to match them to individuals for you. You can submit those photos to Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA, or New England Aquarium, and your sightings would be entered into the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium databases,” said James.

Whale spouts and dorsal fins have been spotted on Block Island in recent weeks by island residents, giving signs of warm weather as the whales begin migrating from the south.