Researchers Hoping for Stronger 2018 for North Atlantic Right Whales

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

PROVINCETOWN – Researchers are hoping 2018 will be a better year than 2017 for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population.

At least 17 of whales, which have an estimated population around 450, died last year.

The high mortality rate coupled with only five confirmed births points to the saddest year for the species since they were hunted in the 1700s, according to Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, with the Center for Coastal Studies.

The majority of the deaths occurred in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.

“It appears from the work that has been done by a number of our colleagues up in Canada, and the mortalities that have been found down here, that the causes that have been determined have been ship strike and entanglement,” Mayo said.

There are several deaths where a cause has not yet been determined.

“The arithmetic of this year just adds a more painful image to where the population is moving forward,” Mayo said. “It just does not look good.”

Although the number of fatalities were high in 2017, it was a record year for identifying individual right whales on Cape Cod Bay.

There were several record days consecutively in the bay for whale identifications. Two-hundred and six individual whales were spotted in the Bay in a single day.

“We had almost an explosion of the food resource which was really interesting coupling with the number of whales coming into Cape Cod Bay,” said Christy Hudak, a research associate with the Center for Coastal Studies.

Researchers are studying if they are coming to the Bay because of an increased amount of food or if food sources are decreasing in other areas the whales are known to congregate.

“It seems surreal every time a new report came in that there was a carcass found and that fingers were crossed that it would an already known dead individual,” said Brigid McKenna, a research associate with the Center for Coastal Studies.

Many of the deceased whales were identified as whales which have been spotted in Cape Cod Bay.

“You get to know exactly what they look like, kind of where they go,” McKenna said. “When you see them some of them have some sort of seasonality as it seems and so to find out that this individual that you’ve been documenting for years is now dead is heartbreaking.”

Researchers say early trips to the bay this winter show similar food resources for the whales as the previous year.

“What’s really going to be telling is in January when we start looking at the food resource then,” Hudak said.

The availability of the food will determine how the habitat will shape up for the species when they arrive in mass in March and April, according to Hudak.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials believe the whales could become extinct unless new steps are taken to protect them.

Local marine researchers are hailing a proposal from the Canadian government to use their $400 million Atlantic Fisheries Fund and an innovation prize to develop new fishing gear or technologies in order to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The effort was listed among the agency’s “key action items” at a meeting in early November.

By BRIAN MERCHANT, CapeCod.com NewsCenter

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