Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

On National Endangered Species Day, Lingering Right Whales Are At Increased Risk

Whale dead from ship strike. Photo Credit: Brian Skerry/NEOO

This post was originally featured on New England Ocean Odyssey.

Today is National Endangered Species Day. Each year on the third Friday in May, National Endangered Species Day celebrates learning about our endangered and threatened species and how we can help protect them.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law on December 28, 1973 and is administered by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the Endangered Species Act protects about 2,215 species; NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over 125 endangered and threatened marine species.

New England is home to a number of endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, who’s estimated global population is only about 522 individuals.  Between December and April each year, the whales visit Cape Cod Bay to feed on plentiful plankton.

The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, MA monitors and documents the North Atlantic Right Whale population each winter via aerial surveys. This year, researchers have noticed the whales lingering in the area rather than moving offshore to deeper waters (expected at the end of April). The persistence of the whales creates a potentially dangerous situation for this endangered species, as well as people on the water.

Boat traffic in Cape Cod Bay is now increasing with the commercial fishing season starting on May 1 and warmer weather marking the beginning of the recreational boating season. With more boats on the water, the risk of striking a whale greatly increases. Also, as more lobstermen head out on the water, an increase in the number of traps poses a greater risk of entanglement.

Unfortunately, one whale identified as female 3999 by CCS researchers was struck by a boat last week. According to Scott Landry, the director of the CCS Marine Animal Entanglement Response team, the young whale appears to be feeding normally, but the wound is large and infection is a major concern.

The persisting right whales pose a difficult situation for managers because there is little that can be done to remedy the situation except hope that accidents do not occur. Federal and state law already prohibits boaters and fishermen, including their gear, from approaching within 500 yards of a whale. Also, those on the water are urged to reduce speed when traveling through a recent sighting area.

While increased sightings of an endangered species is usually a cause for celebration, hopefully, the right whales will soon move offshore, and the summer fishing and boating season can continue without further incident.


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