MarineFisheries Issues Advisory to Mariners –
be on the lookout for endangered right whales
State officials today issued an urgent warning to all mariners operating in southern and western portions of Cape Cod Bay to be on the lookout for right whales. Researchers have documented the presence of mother and calf pairs of endangered northern right whales feeding in the area. The state’s Right Whale Conservation Program has identified the feeding whales and measured a plankton resource that suggest the whales will remain in the area.
“Northern right whales are the most endangered of the large whales in the western Atlantic Ocean, with a population of only about 350 animals,” said David Peters, Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game. “All mariners need to be cautious in the southwest portion of Cape Cod Bay and avoid approaching within 500 yards of this endangered marine mammal. The presence of at least five mother/calf pairs recently documented in the Bay makes this situation especially sensitive.”
Biologists with the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) are working cooperatively with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and Cornell University’s Bio-acoustic Research Program to study and protect right whales in Cape Cod Bay. Scientists, including Dr. Stormy Mayo, have forecasted that these whales are likely to remain grazing on dense plankton concentrations in the area for the next few days. Cornell University bio-acoustics expert Dr. Chris Clark and his team have deployed real-time listening buoys in the Bay and are able to monitor the whale presence on a continuous basis. Paul Diodati, Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, said, “It is critical that all mariners look out for these whales, especially in the area off the eastern end of the Cape Cod Canal.” Diodati added that “I am especially pleased to be able to use the results of the ongoing right whale research in our waters to protect these endangered whales. The real-time monitoring and forecasting makes the Massachusetts Right Whale Conservation Program the most comprehensive of any program throughout the species’ range.”
Late winter and early spring is the peak season for right whales in Cape Cod Bay and they usually depart the Bay before the end of April for other habitats, notably the Great South Channel Critical Habitat east of Nantucket. During summer months, right whales concentrate in the Bay of Fundy and off Brown's Bank, south of Nova Scotia.
Director Diodati, who called for the right whale advisory, cautioned “It is important that mariners operate at slower speeds, keep a lookout for right whales on or near the water’s surface, and not approach right whales, which can be especially vulnerable to ship strikes while feeding.”
The Commonwealth is taking this action because of the observed whale behavior -- surface and subsurface skim feeding on dense plankton patches. Scientists believe feeding right whales may be oblivious to their surroundings, and thus vulnerable to vessel traffic. Of additional concern is the number of mothers and calves recently documented in the Bay. Right whale calves are only 15 – 20 feet long this time of year and can be especially difficult to spot. The southwestern portion of the Bay is a bottleneck for vessel traffic exiting and entering the Cape Cod Canal. Approaches to Provincetown Harbor is another area of concern with feeding right whales seen close to shore. More vessel traffic is expected in these areas over the next few weeks with seasonal increases in recreational and commercial fishing, as well as whale watching, and passenger ship activity. Vessel operators are reminded that approaching right whales within 500 yards is a violation of state and federal regulation.
Ship strikes are believed to be the primary cause of man-induced mortality, with four deaths this past year attributed to vessel strikes. The last known ship strike in waters off Massachusetts occurred in April 1999 when a sixty-ton well-known female nick-named “Stacatto” was discovered dead in eastern Cape Cod Bay. A necropsy revealed a broken jaw and ribs suggesting ship-strike as the cause of death.
The North Atlantic right whale population has failed to grow over the last decade and remains around 350 individuals in the North Atlantic. At least twenty-seven calves were born this past winter off the southeast U.S.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has been issuing warnings to mariners and others via the Northern Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (SAS). Participating agencies in the SAS include the Commonwealth’s DMF and Environmental Police, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Center for Coastal Studies, and other research groups. Advisories can be viewed at the NMFS Northeast Region web site. Also, NOAA weather radio often includes right whale sighting reports.
The Commonwealth is taking this action because of the observed whale behavior -- surface and subsurface skim feeding on dense plankton patches and the higher number of mother/ calf pairs. Scientists believe feeding right whales may be oblivious to their surroundings, unable to avoid an oncoming vessel. Vessel operators are reminded that approaching right whales within 500 yards is a violation of state and federal regulation.
Since mid-December, whale surveys have been conducted in Cape Cod Bay and adjacent waters by the Center for Coastal Studies under contract to DMF. Additional bay-wide whale surveys will be conducted two to three times per week through mid-May. When right whales depart the area, this advisory will be changed or lifted.
Concentrations of northern right whales have been documented in Cape Cod Bay. They are feeding at -- or just below -- the surface and are difficult to see, thus increasing the risk of collisions with vessels. In addition, a large number of right whale mothers with their calves have been seen in the area. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is asking all mariners traversing the Cape Cod Bay Critical Habitat, especially in the approaches to the Cape Cod Canal and Provincetown Harbor, to:
· Reduce speed to 15 knots, or slower if visibility is poor.
· Post an observer and be on alert.
· Operators are reminded that approaching right whales within 500 yards is a violation of state and federal regulation.
If at first you do not succeed-sky diving is not the sport for you.