May 9, 2016
Last week, researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) prepared to report that a successful 2016 North Atlantic right whale season was winding down. During the period between December 2015 and May 2016 a total of more than a quarter of the estimated population of these critically endangered whales, including six mothers and their newborn calves, were documented by the Center’s aerial survey teams.
These aerial surveys, provided by New England Specialized Aviation Services (NESAS), fly in and out of Chatham Municipal Airport (CQX), the airport closest to the right whales federally designated Northeastern U.S. Foraging Area Critical Habitat.
For more than twenty years, the surveys, which take place 2 – 3 times per week during right whale season, have provided vital information to local, state and federal managers including the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the Massachusetts Environmental Police, and to conservation scientists.
Aerial observers locate the whales, document their behavior, and send out alerts to warn mariners of the presence of right whales in the area.
“The working relationship between CCS, NESAS and the Chatham Airport has been critically important to the protection of right whales in the waters around Cape Cod and to the effort to conserve this nearly extinct species” said Dr. Charles ‘Stormy’ Mayo, director of the Center’s Right Whale Ecology Program.
Last week, after poor weather kept the NESAS survey plane and crew grounded for a week, the CCS team was devastated to learn that one of the newborn calves that had been in Cape Cod Bay, the offspring of right whale #1281, Punctuation, was found dead off a Chatham Beach, probably the victim of a collision with a vessel. The heartbreaking death of the calf east of Cape Cod, beyond the CCS survey area where protection efforts by the federal and state agencies are particularly strong, is a tragedy for the future of the species .
Meanwhile, mariners are reminded that right whales may still be in the area and are encouraged to go slow, post a look-out, and remain at least 500 yards away from these critically endangered animals.