Study Claims Climate Change Is Impacting Right Whale Use Of Cape Cod Bay

Three North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay.
CREDIT: Brigid McKenna/Center for Coastal Studies, under NOAA research permit #19315-01

HYANNIS – A recent study led by the New England Aquarium says climate change is having an effect on how large whale species such as North Atlantic right whales use habitats in the Gulf of Maine, with a significant impact on their use of Cape Cod Bay over the last twenty years.

The study, which was published in Global Change Biology and also included researchers from institutions such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Center for Coastal Studies, used over 20 years of data and novel statistical techniques to examine trends in whale habitat use of Cape Cod Bay.

It found that peak use in the bay had shifted by almost three weeks for right whales and humpback whales.

The findings suggest that migratory marine mammals have adapted the timing of their migrations in response to climate driven changes in the environment, with rising temperatures and changes in the food supply in the Gulf of Maine causing right whales to increase their presence in Cape Cod Bay, especially in April and May.

“One of the biggest gaps in our understanding of how climate change is shifting the yearly cycles of life in the oceans involves the largest migrating animals – whales,” said Dr. Michelle Staudinger, Professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst.

“Even though they’re the largest mammals on earth, we have an incomplete understanding of where some whales go and when,” she said.

“This new research helps us understand how seasonal whale migration is changing, which is critical for their protection and conservation in our region.”

Scientists warn these changes could lead to an increased risk of vessel strikes and fishing entanglements in Cape Cod Bay as vessel speeding limits and fishing restrictions have been designed to coincide with the whales’ historical peak use of the habitat.

In response, government agencies will need to adapt to protect the critically endangered right whales, whose numbers have dropped to an estimated 336 individuals left in the wild.

“Changes in when whales use their traditional habitats has important implications for the design of protected areas,” said Dr. Dan Pendleton, lead author of the study and research scientist in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Marine Life.

“This issue is especially important as climate change continues to alter animal migrations.”

To view the study, click here.

By, Matthew Tomlinson, NewsCenter

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