Right Whale Research – Summer 2019 Update

July 24, 2019

The fieldwork portion for our aerial survey team came to a close in mid-May as we bid farewell to our right whale visitors who left our region and tracked north to their summer feeding grounds. We hoped our research colleagues would have a positive season as they monitored the whales’ distribution and behavior in these areas. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a feeling of déjà vu as mortality has climbed this summer as it did in 2017. Eight right whale carcasses have been discovered so far in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, seven of which have had their identities confirmed. We saw four of the seven identified individuals over the recent winter and spring months during our aerial surveys in Cape Cod Bay and surrounding waters.

Most notable is #3329, a 16-year-old female, who we first spotted in Cape Cod Bay in the middle of December 2018. Her final sighting before she left our neck of the woods was the end of April 2019, nearly four months later! We were able to document her early arrival due to the incredible outpouring of financial support for our 1,000 Friends of Right Whales fundraising campaign and a grant from the Disney Foundation; combined they allowed us to begin surveys a whole two months earlier than most years.

Although the number of known right whale deaths have now surpassed the number of calves born this year, the dire situation surrounding the species is not without hope. Three individual right whales have been spotted in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence with lethal entanglements and are the sole focus of the rescue teams in Canada. Cuts have been made to the ropes on two of the whales, and the third whale’s position is currently being tracked for disentanglement efforts. We are hopeful that more attempts can be made to all three entangled whales to help the animals shed the rope they carry –as death tolls are likely to rise if left untreated.

“Wolverine” #4023, CCS image, NMFS Permit No.14603

Since our fieldwork wrapped up here on the Cape in May, team member Alison Ogilvie has been flying for NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. She has been alternating between surveying Canadian and US waters every two weeks in an effort to assist Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and to continue monitoring large whales in the northeast US. Unfortunately, she had the displeasure of finding Wolverine, #4023, the first reported death. She was also on hand to assist finding all three of the entangled whales and was involved in the air support directing the teams on the water to these individuals.

In June, Brigid McKenna made her annual pilgrimage to Lubec, Maine with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at New England Aquarium to continue the decades-long study of right whales in the Bay of Fundy. Meanwhile back on Cape Cod, Dr. Stormy Mayo, Christy Hudak and Amy James continue analyzing data that have come from the decades of research conducted here at CCS!

While another summer passes with a spate of right whale deaths, we continue to see firsthand how a species’ range extending pole-wards has the potential to overlap with human activities with disastrous results. The losses are magnified in this species because the individuals are so well-known, but the problem is not only affecting right whales- they are the canaries in the coal mine. This is the opportunity to show how governments, industry, and researchers can work together to create positive change, but it must be a collective effort with people everywhere willing to make sacrifices.

Our team is already anxiously awaiting fall surveys to see who will return to the waters surrounding Cape Cod. We will be wishing for fair winds and following seas to those set to return to Cape Cod Bay in winter and reflecting on those already lost.


Click here to read the earlier field notes from the aerial survey team.

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