Right Whales Congregate in Cape Cod Bay Earlier than Usual

COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES Endangered North Atlantic right whales

Endangered North Atlantic right whales

BARNSTABLE – The Division of Marine Fisheries is urging boaters to use caution and be on the lookout for endangered North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay.

The whales have congregated in large numbers in the Bay earlier than normal. The endangered whales usually do not arrive in the bay until late April.

An aerial survey by the Center of Coastal Studies in Provincetown on Sunday spotted 85 of the whales, which is almost 20 percent of the entire world population.

“If they are there it is definitely food related,” said Erin Burke, a protected species biologist for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “And they are feeding right now.”

The whales are feeding at or just below the surface which puts them at risk of being struck by boats. The Division of Maine Fisheries is asking vessel operators in the bay area to reduce speeds to less than 10 knots and to post lookouts to avoid collisions.

Federal and state law also prohibits boats from approaching within 500 yards of a right whale. Operators that find themselves within 500 feet of a right whale should slowly and cautiously leave the area.

The bay is also closed to recreational and commercial pot fishing gear between from February through April.

Researchers are not sure how long the species will stay in Cape Cod Bay.

“We are not sure if they will stick around as they do until the end of April, but we wanted to make sure that people had the information that the whales were doing a behavior that they typically do in April much earlier this year,” Burke said.

They right whales are typically gone from the bay by May 1.

“We’ll have to see whether the food resource that’s in the bay will sustain 85 whales for the next month,” Burke said. “They can eat down the resource pretty quickly.”

Burke said 85 animals is a lot but it is a number they have seen before.

The species, which have an approximate population of 500, is slowly improving.

“They’re increasing slowly at around 2 percent a year,” Burke said. “But they are still at risk for entanglement and vessel collision and the impact that has on their reproduction.”

Boaters are also asked to report all sightings of right whales immediately by calling the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Hotline at 866-755-NOAA or by contacting the U.S. Coast Guard on Channel 16.

“If you do have a sighting either from land or from some distance away we would like to know about that,” Burke said. “We are flying the airplane and seeing most of them but sometimes there are sightings we don’t know about or in locations we haven’t been is a few days. So information about all sightings is useful.”

By BRIAN MERCHANT, CapeCod.com NewsCenter

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