Researchers Go Wild For Spring 2016 Collection!

Spring in New England means right whales feast upon large blooms of zooplankton in Cape Cod Bay (CCB) and the nearby Great South Channel, which allows data hungry research teams to get a lot of work done! The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) runs dedicated aerial surveys to cover CCB from December to May, and collects water samples to monitor habitat conditions. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) surveyed the Great South Channel and surrounding waters by vessel and plane; they are still at it, actually, and still finding whales! Additionally, teams from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), New England Aquarium and NEFSC conducted research from vessels in the Bay.

The crew from Center for Coastal Studies on R/V Shearwater doing habitat monitoring work on April 25, as a whale feeds at the surface. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, are a form of technology that researchers are currently experimenting with as a new collection method, and two research vessels were successfully able to launch drones around right whales this Spring. Members from our team were lucky enough to join a few trips with the WHOI and NOAA crew as they used a hexicopter drone to collect images for photogrammetry, which will help with the health analysis of individual right whales.

Reaching up to catch the returning drone after the mission in Cape Cod Bay. Photo by Veronique LaCapra. Copyright: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The team also used the drone to collect blow samples for genetic and microbiome analysis, similar to a study WHOI did last year with humpback whales! We already know the photos taken with the drone are absolutely stunning and will be incredibly useful to the Catalog, but we're looking forward to learning about their findings from using this new tool.

Overhead aerial view of a right whale at the surface, taken with the hexicopter. Photo by John W. Durban. Research approach of whales using the hexicopter was authorized by NMFS permit #17355 and flights were authorized under an MOU between NOAA and the FAA (Class G MOU #2016-ESA-3-NOAA).  Copyright: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For the remainder of the season, we joined up with members of a NEFSC team with a special goal in mind: to collect biopsy samples from right whales. An arrow with a specialized tip which collects a small plug of blubber and skin is shot at the whale's body using a crossbow. Even though it sounds rough, the vast majority of whales display little or no reaction to this, and the spot heals over quickly. The scientific gains from this endeavor, however, are HUGE. From one sample, we are able to confirm who the mother is (rarely, a calf will become adopted by a different mother), discover who the father is, and determine the sex. The newly darted individual gets added to this database, which will help determine any offspring he/she has in the future, as well help match it to a dead animal through a skin or bone sample collected from a carcass. Genetics has also helped scientists estimate the original size of the population before commercial hunting (it's not as high as previously believed!), and even tell us how few calving females there were at the population's lowest point. All of this information is available to us through the hard work of the amazing geneticists associated with Saint Mary's University and Trent University.

The biopsy arrow hits the whale and immediately bounces off the body with a sample. The collection tip of the arrow is very small in relation to the size of the whale. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom, NEFSC/NEAq under NOAA Research Permit #17355-1.

Since the late 80's, over 503 individual right whales (71% including non-catalogued individuals) have been genetically sampled, which is insanely impressive for any wild population. The majority of calves are sampled when they are with their mothers in the Southeast, and non-sampled calves and adults would be darted during the summer in the Bay of Fundy. However, plenty of individuals remain on our "wanted" list, and since Cape Cod Bay (CCB) has been utilized by so many whales recently, we decided to head there to see if we could be successful in finding the whales we needed. Thankfully we were, and obtained two very exciting samples! One of these came from the single calf that hadn't been biopsied in the Southeast this winter (shoutout to the teams who sampled all the other calves!), as well as a non-catalogued whale currently known by the code BK01GSC14. This whale has only been photographed eight times since 2010, and only in CCB and the Great South Channel.

We'll finally get to unlock the mystery that is BK01GSC14, thanks to genetics! Photo: Marilyn Marx, NEFSC/NEAq under NOAA research permit #17355-1.
Who will be revealed as the parents of this whale? It will take time to get the results from the lab, so until then we remain curious and look forward to crossing more individuals off our "wanted" list as we encounter loads of right whales this summer (*fingers crossed*).



Catching up on Winter 2016

Whew! For those of you who have been paying attention to the subject of right whales in the news, you know that the past few months have kept researchers on their toes! Let's dive in and get everyone up to speed, first with the Southeast Season. Stay tuned for our Spring season update next!


Each winter, pregnant females (along with others) swim to the shallow waters off Florida and Georgia to give birth. To photo-document and to alert mariners to the presence of these particularly vulnerable mother and calf pairs, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Sea To Shore Alliance, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Marineland Florida flew aerial surveys. Additionally, FWC, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Duke University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Florida Atlantic University, and NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center conducted research from vessels. Finally, Marine Resources Council had a team of volunteers searching for right whales from land. Pretty impressive list of teams, right?

Catalog #4094 and her one day old calf swim off the coast of Georgia. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

This year, the teams documented 14 calves between the first of December and the end of March. The first calves were discovered on December 10th and the last on February 17th. Four of the mothers were first timers including a precocious six-year-old whale, Catalog #4094 (right whales give birth to their first calf on average at 10 years of age; the youngest was five). There were also some older, experienced mothers such as Punctuation (#1281- at least 34 years old, seen with her eighth known calf) and #1233 (at least 42 years old, seen with her sixth calf). Overall, it was a quiet season with only 20 different whales identified (not including the calves) and no young juveniles seen. In the 2000’s, most of the younger juveniles were seen annually in the region, and the total number of whales documented ranged from 150 to 200. Quite a difference!

The general public had the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of a mother calf right whale without ever squeezing into a tiny plane like observers do, thanks to Clipper (#3450) and her calf’s two-day excursion into the Indian River near Sebastian, FL. In early February the pair made their way into the inner coastal water way where they remained for over 24 hours. Word spread and many people were able to see them from land. When they finally made their way out of the Indian River the following day, some lucky spectators were able to watch from the Sebastian Inlet Bridge as the pair passed under the bridge and back out into the ocean.

Clipper and her calf swim along the bank of the Sebastian Inlet. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

The joy of seeing young whales born into to the population was tempered by seeing two adult females in very poor health: Cherokee (#3670) and Quatro (#1968). Cherokee, born in 2006 to Piper (#2330), had first been seen with her injuries a year earlier- massive wounds on her head and tail from an entanglement, with a portion of her right lower lip torn off. She was seen in the Southeast just once in December 2015, looking thin and with extensive skin lesions.

Cherokee showing extensive damage to her right lip. Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.
Quatro was born in 1989. We're all quite familiar with her as she is a regular visitor of the major habitats. We were shocked when she was seen in January and February, emaciated and with baleen sticking out of her closed mouth. As there were no gross signs of injury visible, it is unknown what exactly happened to her, though the unusual protrusion of baleen hints that maybe something happened to her jaw or head. Sadly, the prognosis for both whales is poor.

Quatro was last seen on February 23, 2016. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

On a happier note, many of the mothers and calves successfully made their way to the northern feeding grounds this spring. Look for an update on them and other whales in our next blog.

-Philip Hamilton


Reducing Rope Strength Could Reduce Entanglement Severity

With vessel strikes to right whales on the decline since numerous mitigation measures were put into place, the current number one threat to right whales is entanglement in fishing gear. The majority of the entangling fishing gear involves pot or trap gear (for bottom dwellers like lobster and crab, or certain fish species) and gillnet (for groundfish like cod and haddock, and other fish species). Nearly 83% of the North Atlantic right whale population shows evidence of having been entangled in fishing gear at least once, with 59% being entangled more than once (some whales have experienced over five entanglement events!). Entanglement impacts cover a wide range: from residual scarring only (typically minor), to moderate and severe levels, the latter of which includes individuals with attached gear that can lead to reduced health, infection, severing of body parts, starvation... along with what must be an incredible amount of suffering. Unfortunately, in recent years entanglement cases categorized as severe have become more frequent.

Right whale "Bridle" (Catalog #3311) suffered a severe entanglement during which this line sliced through and under the callosity. Despite disentanglement attempts, Bridle most likely died from causes related to his injuries. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under NOAA Permit # 932-1905/MA 009526.

Steps have been taken to address this chronic problem, such as the creation of seasonal fishing closures, reduction of the number of vertical lines in the water and use of sinking groundline, but it's still too early to determine how these measures have helped. Researchers from the New England Aquarium (Amy Knowlton, Scott Kraus, Tim Werner) and Center for Coastal Studies (Jooke Robbins, Scott Landry), and rope engineer Henry McKenna turned to examining the ropes recovered from disentangled whales or from those found dead and entangled to see if trends would emerge to shape the story of why these entanglements have increased. That's right- the National Marine Fisheries Service maintains a storage facility that houses the ropes pulled off of entangled whales! This is just one of the reasons why disentanglement by professional teams is so important- they know they need to recover the gear to help advance our knowledge and understanding of the entanglement issue.

"Ruffian" (Catalog #3530), photographed with numerous raw wounds all over his body after a severe entanglement. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA Permit #932-1489-09.

Amy Knowlton and her colleagues took these recovered ropes (132 different ropes from 70 entanglements of humpback, right, fin and minke whales) and analyzed them to determine polymer type, diameter, and breaking strength. They then combined this information with whatever was known about the individual whales with regards to entanglement configuration, severity of the injury, and life history to get a bigger picture of what is going on. Their newly published paper "Effects of fishing rope strength on the severity of large whale entanglements" thoroughly explains all of this (and includes a download of supporting information such as an example of a case study and how these ropes were analyzed), but in a nutshell here's what they found:

  • Injury severity has increased over the years, and is related to rope strength.
  • Weaker species (e.g.: minke) and younger whales are less likely to successfully break free of stronger rope, resulting in complex and potentially lethal entanglements.
  • Reduced breaking strength rope (breaks at 1700 pounds or 7.56 kN) could reduce the probability of mortality by 72%.
  • Forces applied during normal fishing operations in many areas are lower than 1700 lbs, so presently used fishing line is stronger than what the majority of fisheries need.
The tight line on this whale (Catalog #3279) cuts through the blowholes and into the head, while likely also wrapping through the mouth as the line is seen exiting the top of the lip. The whale's ability to breathe was clearly inhibited. Photo: Canadian Whale Institute/ New England Aquarium.

Rope manufacturing evolved in the 1950's from natural fibers to synthetic, and in the mid 1990's another leap was made in production by using methods which blend different plastics together (creating copolymer ropes like Polysteel and similar brands) which are widely used today. In a similar shift, pot traps made of wood were replaced with wire traps by the early 1980's, which allowed for an expansion of fishing effort both temporally and spatially. Amy Knowlton and her coauthors believe this shift into heavier, stronger gear is responsible for the increased severity of large whale entanglements. The next focus is to work with rope manufacturers to develop ropes that have reduced strength but better degradation resistance, and also to evaluate where such ropes could be used effectively by fishers. Stay tuned for further updates on this important work!

"Bayla" (Catalog #3911) in extremely poor health while severely entangled. She was found dead at sea a couple of weeks after this photo was taken. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, taken under NOAA Permit #932-1905.

This new paper has received interest from the media, so here are a few links to articles about the research and interviews with Amy:

"Fishing line causing lethal entanglements for right whales," CBC News
"Right Whales: Saving the iconic endangered species, a Q&A," Nature World News
"How To Stop Whales Getting Entangled In Our Nets," IFL Science!
"New Publication On Baleen Whale Bycatch," Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction

"Gannet" (Catalog #2660) displays severe wounds to her tail stock and flukes after an entanglement. Hopefully injuries like this can become a thing of the past. Photo: New England Aquarium


Exciting Right Whale Sponsorship News!

For more than 20 years, over 2,300 people have supported our research by participating in the Right Whale Sponsorship Program. As sponsors, they have learned about the plight of this endangered species and our 35 years of research to protect them. The Right Whale Sponsorship Program provides vital support for our work and we are so grateful to all who have taken part in the Program over the years. We have some EXCITING Sponsorship news to share and we hope that in this upcoming holiday season you will consider sponsoring a right whale and/or purchasing one of our great right whale-themed gifts!

UPDATED SPONSORSHIP MATERIALS! All of our sponsorship packages have been updated with a fresh new look and materials! Full color informational booklets, the hardcover book “Disappearing Giants”, a one-year subscription to our biannual newsletter, Right Whale Research News, stickers, and a coupon to the New England Aquarium Gift shop are included in all sponsorships. And don’t forget: Each sponsorship is tax deductible and directly supports our Right Whale Research Program!

NEW WHALES!  There are three new whales available to sponsor: Aphrodite, Manta and Gemini! Each whale has a fascinating history and we are eager to share their stories with you! Meet all the Sponsorship whales here.

New Sponsorship Whale, Gemini, one of the oldest whales in the population! Photo: Yan Guilbault/NEAq

CALLING ALL TEACHERS! We now offer a Classroom Sponsorship that's perfect for classroom or service projects. Along with all the other sponsorship materials, the Classroom Sponsorship also includes a single plush right whale for the classroom, stickers for up to 30 students and access to the right whale-themed Smithsonian in your Classroom lesson plans "The Tale of the Whale"

Learn more about our Sponsorship program and the different support levels available here.

RIGHT WHALE THEMED GIFT IDEAS! In addition to sponsoring a right whale, you can shop in support of Right Whale Research by purchasing T-shirts, books or the super soft right whale plushy. Net proceeds go directly toward the annual costs of field research, data analysis and professional collaborations. These all make wonderful gifts for any occasion and shipping is FREE!

Thanks again to our sponsors for all your support over the years!!

~ Marilyn and Heather 


#25: BOF 2015 By The Numbers

2 months
21 team staff and volunteers
4 survey boats (Nereid, Callisto, Shelagh, Jupiter)
3 survey areas (Bay of Fundy [BOF], Roseway Basin [RB], Gulf of St. Lawrence [GSL])
35 survey days total
3073 nautical miles on survey total
2 individual whales photographed by GSL team
8 individual whales photographed by BOF team
14 individual whales photographed by RB team
17 known North Atlantic right whale calves born in 2015
1 mom/calf pair sighted (Calvin!)
1 entangled whale seen
1 whale with severe injury seen (chopped fluke)
0 poop samples
0 biopsy samples
1 stranded basking shark
1 orca (Old Thom)
3 years out of 3 that Kelsey has missed Old Thom sightings
3 separate events of fishing rope caught around Nereid propeller
1 unfinished dock
1 massive fog monster
36 field seasons in BOF completed!

"But... how do we get to shore?"