Center for Coastal Studies
Center for Coastal Studies
News Article | May 1, 2017
Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of right whale ecology at the federally funded Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, says ominous signs suggest the global population of 500 animals is slowly declining—not incrementally rebounding as experts had hoped a year ago. And the whales, it turns out, can be pretty ornery. The Associated Press asked Mayo about how the whales—some of the rarest creatures on the planet—are really faring: Q: Right whales are back in Cape Cod Bay for the second spring in a row. That must make you pretty happy? A: Not entirely. The whole story on right whales is very simple arithmetic: How many die and how many are born? The birth rate this year is extraordinarily low. We've only seen four whales born in the North Atlantic. And the mortality rate is up. Q: How many have died? A: There have been at least four deaths, but those are whales whose carcasses have been found. We know more whales have died offshore and haven't been found. The result is a decline in the population. It's troubling because we can't seem to control the human causes—entanglements and ship strikes—and we're not sure why more calves aren't being born. Q: And yet so many of these animals are being seen. Isn't that good news? A: These are extraordinarily rare animals whose habitat stretches theoretically all the way to Spain, so yes. During a single eight-hour spotting flight, we've seen 200 whales. That's 40 percent of the estimated population. But we have to ask ourselves why they're feeding here now. It may indicate that the places they used to feed are failing. When they make these radical changes, it's a little worrisome. Q: What's the biggest threat to these whales? A: Vessel strikes seem to have dropped through a collective effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard to reduce speed in certain shipping channels. So now, if there are collisions, they're less severe. But entanglements in fishing gear are a big problem. Eighty percent of the population bears entanglement scars. As we speak, somewhere offshore there's a whale that's dragging gear. Q: What happens to whales when they're entangled? A: Many manage to free themselves. But others drag gear for months, and we've seen individuals that have dragged it for years. There's some evidence that female right whales, if they've been entangled, are weakened and have a diminished capacity to reproduce. That may help explain the low calving rate. But we can't get to every animal, and it's not easy to cut the ropes off. Right whales are one of the most ornery creatures I've ever dealt with. Q: Really? They look so gentle. A: Well, let me wrap some rope around your neck. You can't get it off. Then down comes an alien with weird hooks poking at you. Trust me: When they want to unload, they are not easy animals to deal with. Q: Is the public getting lulled into thinking the whales are OK just because we're seeing them every spring? A: I think so. People think, 'Oh, this is good stuff.' But we're looking at animals that spend a lot of time in waters where there's a lot of ship traffic, places that have a lot of fishing gear. Look at their fate during an entire year and it doesn't look so good. Explore further: Spate of whale entanglements could inform regulations
Legare B.,Center for Coastal Studies |
Mace C.,Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Journal of Coastal Research | Year: 2017
The Texas coast is characterized by an extensive array of shallow turbid embayments containing expansive oyster habitats and is home to a large Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) fishery. Mapping habitats in shallow (1-10 m), turbid environments is challenging, since direct visual access to the habitats limited. To quantify the extent of habitats, the integration of remote sensing and GIS technologies is used. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department coupled two acoustic technologies (sidescan sonar and echosounder) to map habitats within Copano Bay, a 181-km2 shallow water embayment along the mid-Texas coast. Data were collected during 17 days from September 2013 to February 2014 and resulted in 159 km2 of sidescan imagery and 375 km of single beam echosounder data. Individual echosounder transmissions were segmented and processed in ArcGIS 10.1 using the "Unsupervised Classification" tool. Using the classified echosounder data to identify objects located within the sidescan imagery allows for interpolation of habitat using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Habitat Digitizer ArcGIS Extension. A total of 25.9 km2 of oyster habitat, 11.6 km2 of shell, 26.4 km2 of sand, and 95.1 km2 of mud were digitized. The resulting habitat map had an overall accuracy of 86% from ground truthing accuracy assessments. This article provides methods for combining sidescan and echosounder acoustic technologies to accurately map habitats in shallow Texas estuaries. © Coastal Education and Research Foundation, Inc. 2017.
News Article | August 31, 2016
FILE - In this April 10, 2008 file photo, the head of a North Atlantic right whale peers up from the water as another whale passes behind in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass. An August 2016 study found that the ability of the endangered whale species to recover is jeopardized by increasing rates of entanglement in fishing gear and a resultant drop in birth rates. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File) PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The ability of an endangered whale species to recover is jeopardized by increasing rates of entanglement in fishing gear and a resultant drop in birth rates, according to scientists who study the animal. The population of North Atlantic right whales has slowly crept up from about 300 in 1992 to about 500 in 2010. But a study that appeared this month in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science said the number of baby right whales born every year has declined by nearly 40 percent since 2010. Study author Scott Kraus, a scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston who worked on the study, said the whales' population suffers even when they survive entanglements in fishing gear. He said data suggest those entanglements have long-term negative physical and reproductive effects on them. "They are carrying heavy gear around, and they can't move as fast or they can't feed as effectively," Kraus told The Associated Press in an interview. "And it looks like it affects their ability to reproduce because it means they can't put on enough fat to have a baby." Entanglements have surpassed ship strikes as a leading danger to right whales in recent years. Forty-four percent of diagnosed right whale deaths were due to ship strikes and 35 percent were due to entanglements from 1970 to 2009, the study said. From 2010 to 2015, 15 percent of diagnosed deaths were due to ship strikes and 85 percent were due to entanglements, it said. There is reason to believe the entanglements could harm conservation efforts despite recent positive signs on the whales' recovery, Kraus said. Researchers said earlier this year that they were beginning to see more of the whales in Cape Cod Bay, and that was a good sign. Stormy Mayo, a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, said the drive to make fishing gear safer for the whales could be key to saving them. "There's a great deal of work being done to try to change the configurations of various kinds of fishing gear or the methods of fishing to reduce entanglement," he told the AP. North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered species of whales in the world. They spend the warm months feeding in areas off the Northeastern states and Canada and spend the winter off Southern states, where they give birth. They are called right whales because they were hunted relentlessly during the whaling era, when they were considered the "right" whale to hunt because they were slow and floated when killed.
News Article | August 31, 2016
The population of North Atlantic right whales has slowly crept up from about 300 in 1992 to about 500 in 2010. But a study that appeared this month in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science said the number of baby right whales born every year has declined by nearly 40 percent since 2010. Study author Scott Kraus, a scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston who worked on the study, said the whales' population suffers even when they survive entanglements in fishing gear. He said data suggest those entanglements have long-term negative physical and reproductive effects on them. "They are carrying heavy gear around, and they can't move as fast or they can't feed as effectively," Kraus told The Associated Press in an interview. "And it looks like it affects their ability to reproduce because it means they can't put on enough fat to have a baby." Entanglements have surpassed ship strikes as a leading danger to right whales in recent years. Forty-four percent of diagnosed right whale deaths were due to ship strikes and 35 percent were due to entanglements from 1970 to 2009, the study said. From 2010 to 2015, 15 percent of diagnosed deaths were due to ship strikes and 85 percent were due to entanglements, it said. There is reason to believe the entanglements could harm conservation efforts despite recent positive signs on the whales' recovery, Kraus said. Researchers said earlier this year that they were beginning to see more of the whales in Cape Cod Bay, and that was a good sign. Stormy Mayo, a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, said the drive to make fishing gear safer for the whales could be key to saving them. "There's a great deal of work being done to try to change the configurations of various kinds of fishing gear or the methods of fishing to reduce entanglement," he told the AP. North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered species of whales in the world. They spend the warm months feeding in areas off the Northeastern states and Canada and spend the winter off Southern states, where they give birth. They are called right whales because they were hunted relentlessly during the whaling era, when they were considered the "right" whale to hunt because they were slow and floated when killed. Explore further: Fishermen want humpback whales off endangered list More information: Scott D. Kraus et al, Recent Scientific Publications Cast Doubt on North Atlantic Right Whale Future, Frontiers in Marine Science (2016). DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2016.00137
News Article | November 2, 2015
An 813-pound female leatherback sea turtle was found dead a mile south of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Necropsy reports from biologists revealed the adult female sea turtle died from rope entanglement. A two-foot section of marine rope was found in the sea turtle's mouth. Necropsy revealed several abrasions and teared tissues that complemented the rope entanglement, which led the turtle to a point of exhaustion and eventually drowned. Leatherback sea turtles are considered the biggest turtles in the world and also one of the reptiles' largest. The six-and-a-half-foot leatherback sea turtle was towed to a boat dock close to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The necropsy was completed at the New England Aquarium Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy, where officials determined the sea turtle had been dead for almost three days. The lifeless turtle was about the average size of its species. "It's the only sea turtle species that doesn't have a hard shell. It's like a hide that you might encounter on cattle, but softer and more leather-like," said Tony LaCasse, the spokesman for the New England Aquarium. The sea turtle had a tracking tag fastened to its body, which was probably used during nesting on the Caribbean beach. The exact locations will be determined early this week. Leatherback turtles are rarely seen species. However, another leatherback turtle was caught on a fishing gear near Pamet Harbor in Truro. The marine animal response team from Center for Coastal Studies were able to disentangle the 4.5-foot leatherback turtle using a grappling hook and sharp knives. The turtle survived with minor injuries and is expected to recover fully. The larger turtle had not been as fortunate. The mature female's premature death is a huge loss for its species. LaCasse added that out of a thousand hatchlings, only one could survive in the waters. Human activities such as heavy poaching remain the largest threat to the species. In New England, threats include entanglement with vertical lines and collision with boats. In early summer, leatherback sea turtles swim to New England waters to feast on sea jellies. But come winter, they swim towards the warmer waters of the eastern Caribbean.
News Article | December 9, 2015
Entangled whales can tow fishing gear for tens to hundreds of miles over months or even years, before either being freed, shedding the gear on their own, or succumbing to their injuries. In a paper published online Dec. 9, 2015, in Marine Mammal Science, a research team led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), has for the first time quantified the amount of drag on entangled whales that is created by towing fishing gear, such as rope, buoys, and lobster and crab traps. The study provides important data for teams evaluating the risks and benefits of whale disentanglements. "We know that entanglement can change a whale's diving and swimming behavior and depletes their energy," said Julie van der Hoop, lead author of the paper and a PhD Candidate in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography, "but the big thing we have never really known is what it must be like for animals to tow the gear. Is it like wearing an empty backpack or is that backpack overloaded with heavy books? Does removing part of the gear improve chances of survival? These are some of the questions that we were looking to answer with this research." Working with colleagues from the Center for Coastal Studies and NOAA Fisheries, van der Hoop used a load cell to measure the drag forces on various types of fishing gear collected from past right whale entanglements. The team tested 16 sets of gear— five sets that included floats or buoys, one that included a two-brick lobster trap and 10 that were line only— towing them behind the WHOI vessel R/V Tioga across a range of speeds and depths. The team found considerable variation in drag created by the different sets of gear, with the presence of floats and buoys having a significant effect on the overall drag created for the entangled animal. "Some entanglements have very low drag, for example if a whale is towing 10 meters of rope, which is basically the length of the whale itself," van der Hoop said. "The weighted lobster trap created the most with three times the amount of natural drag on a whale's body. That's a huge increase in what is normal to these animals." On average, the team found that entanglement increases the total body drag to 1.5 times that of a non-entangled whale. They also calculated the additional energy costs to the animal. "Entangled animals have to spend twice as much energy to swim at the same speed," van der Hoop said, based on results from a separate study. "This study significantly improves our understanding of the energetic cost of large whale entanglement drag forces. These persistent entanglement cases can be a very serious barrier to whales attempting to grow migrate and reproduce," added Michael Moore, a coauthor and van der Hoop's advisor. "The study also reinforces current disentanglement efforts to minimize entangling gear if it cannot be removed entirely." The tests also allowed researchers to establish a relationship between drag and gear length, which will help in estimating the amount of drag on an entangled whale when it is first spotted. By reducing trailing line length by 75 percent, drag on the animal can be decreased by 85 percent. This research is an expansion on an individual case study in 2013 of a two-year-old female North Atlantic right whale called Eg 3911, or Bayla, who was first sighted emaciated and entangled in fishing gear on Christmas Day 2010 near Jacksonville, Florida, by an aerial survey team. Using a small, suction-cupped device called a Dtag to monitor the animal, van der Hoop, Moore, and colleagues from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and NOAA Fisheries, showed for the first time how fishing lines impacted an individual, entangled whale. Though disentanglement efforts by a rescue team eventually led to the removal of almost all of the gear after several attempts, Eg 3911 didn't survive. Her injuries were too severe to overcome. An aerial survey in February 2011 observed Eg 3911 dead at sea. A necropsy showed that effects of the chronic entanglement were the cause of death. "We know that entanglement does more than just kill whales, and we know North Atlantic right whales aren't as healthy as right whales in the Southern Hemisphere," said coauthor Peter Corkeron, of NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center. "This work is a step towards quantifying just how entanglement is contributing to North Atlantic right whales' health problems." Explore further: Sedation successfully used to disentangle North Atlantic right whale
News Article | November 30, 2016
The Bryde's whale was the only species he could think of that was both common to tropical waters and small enough to fit the profile of what he'd seen. Cerchio, A85, recognized that he suddenly had a rare opportunity on his hands. Bryde's are a poorly known whale. They're fast and small, and a challenge just to find, much less study. A lot of the most basic questions surrounding them, like courtship and mating habits, were still unanswered. If everything worked out, Cerchio might be the one to discover the answers. Seated for dinner at the Nosy Iranja Lodge, surrounded by coconut palms, Cerchio addressed his team. "Look around the table," he said. "Look at each other. Right now, you are looking at the people who know more about Bryde's whales in Madagascar than anybody on the planet." Except they weren't. A subsequent review of the underwater video that his team had taken during the encounter led Cerchio to the realization that the whales in question were no Bryde's. They were something that Cerchio had never seen in his 30-year career. In fact, nobody had ever seen them alive and been aware of what they were looking at. These were the mysterious Omura's whales, an ancient species that scientists didn't even know existed until 10 years ago. If Bryde's had incomplete science, these whales had nothing. Every single question lay open for the asking. This wasn't merely a rare opportunity. Salvatore Cerchio had just won the scientific lottery. In the late 1990s, five Japanese cetacean experts found themselves on a beach on Tsunoshima Island. They were very confused. Local residents had summoned them to evaluate an unusual whale carcass that had washed up three days prior, but nothing quite made sense. The animal had a coloring reminiscent of a fin whale, a head shape more like the blue whale and the body size of a Bryde's. "I was at loss," recalled Tadasu Yamada, a researcher with the National Science Museum in Tokyo who'd led the trip. When the local media asked him which species it was, all he could say was that he wasn't sure. "And we were supposed to be specialists who traveled more than 500 kilometers to the site and did some kind of investigation," he told me. "And the answer was 'We don't know.' They were very surprised." A week later, when DNA results came back, there was still more surprise: no known matches. Baffled, Yamada consulted his colleague, Shiro Wada, then a scientist at the Japanese Fisheries Research Agency. Wada had by then spent two decades digging into old whaling pictures, genetic samples and archived skeletons. He'd been following a mystery that had haunted him since the 1970s, when he'd been doing basic research into the genetic markers of Bryde's whales—work that would allow them to be more easily identified. But there was something off about eight whale specimens he was investigating. Those whales had been identified at the time of their discovery as Bryde's, but Wada was convinced that they were actually a different, unknown species. He'd been trying to prove it ever since. Now here was Yamada telling him about a strange whale that had washed up on Tsunoshima Island. Could this be an actual example of the unknown species that he suspected had been mistaken in the record books for a Bryde's? Tests were conducted, and the body, bones and genetic markers recovered from the carcass all turned out to be a match for Wada's unidentified whale—this was his whale. So he, Yamada and a third colleague, Masayuki Oishi, from the Iwate Prefectural Museum, began to collaborate on research into what they decided to call the Omura's whale, named after a famed Japanese cetacean researcher. Their first paper, which established the new species, appeared in 2003, followed by a handful of publications that delved into the whales' genetic roots and documented samples that had been misclassified in museums around the world. Omura's whales have often been mistaken for Bryde's, but the new research showed that the two species had diverged somewhere between 9 and 17 million years ago—longer ago than humans and chimpanzees went their own way. In 2007, Omura's whales were added to the International Whaling Commission's List of Recognized Species of Cetaceans. All this despite the fact that no one had ever knowingly seen one alive. To be in the presence of a whale is an incredible thing. Slick, prehistoric backs arc over the water, then slide noiselessly under with impossibly long bodies that roll on and on until, well after you've expected it, the moment ends and they disappear. Whales are massive and magnificent. We know that they exist, but they still strike us as something mythical, like sea monsters of lore. Out on a ship, a person can feel as though they're only a trivial visitor to these creatures' oceanic world. Spend an afternoon on a whale-watching tour and it's easy to see how someone could fall in love. That is more or less what happened to Sal Cerchio in 1984. He was a 19-year-old junior at Tufts that year, majoring in marine biology, a choice influenced by boyhood vacations in old south Florida, when it was still loggerhead turtles and undeveloped coastline. On a bit of a whim, Cerchio signed up for a 12-week Ocean Research and Education Society (ORES) trip. The Tufts program involved six weeks of classroom work in Gloucester, Massachusetts, then another six to eight weeks of hands-on research on a 1908 three-masted barkentine ship called the Regina Maris. A poster on the biology department wall promised whales, and to a young student who hadn't yet found his passion, that sounded like a good time. "I was like, yeah, I like whales," Cerchio recalled. "I'll do that." What he didn't know was that ORES was one of the most important whale research training programs in the world. Leading whale experts would come to either deliver lectures to students in Gloucester or sail on the Regina for their research. The program was shuttered years ago, but many of today's major whale scientists can trace their own roots, or those of a mentor, back to that ship. During Cerchio's winter in the program, the Regina set sail for Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic to study humpback whales at their breeding ground. The scientists on board took notice of the young, New Jersey–born student, a city kid out on his first real adventure. Each night when the ship anchored, Cerchio would throw an underwater microphone—a hydrophone—into the sea and stretch out on the deck to listen as the famed humpback whale song streamed in through his Sony Walkman. In the mornings, he would retreat to the lab and transcribe the recordings by hand. "I remember him there with headphones, listening to it, and talking about the structure of the song," said Phillip Clapham, a leading expert on large whales at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "For somebody that young to have picked that up and been able to understand and break down the song into themes and understand what he was listening to was really unusual." Clapham, who was then a scientist with the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod, immediately offered him an internship for the following summer. Cerchio accepted. That research into whale acoustics prepared him for his master's work at the renowned Moss Landing Marine Labs in California. After that, he began a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. Over the next few years, Cerchio began to acquire a reputation as a risk-taker and adventurer—the kind of guy who would tackle massive research projects in order to answer foundational ecology questions that the field had simply stepped around until then, such as which male humpback whales got the girl, as it were, and what strategies they used to do it. When Cerchio joined the World Conservation Society in 2004, he designed acoustic research programs in Angolan waters that turned up the first modern evidence of blue whales in the area. Then, in Madagascan waters, he uncovered whole treasure troves of undiscovered diversity—reporting, in one place off the southwest coast, 14 different species of whales and dolphins that nobody'd had the slightest idea were swimming in those waters. "He's a discoverer. He is a modern-day ocean explorer," said Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell University who helped pioneer the study of whale song with Katy and Roger Payne, and who took notice of Cerchio around the time that the younger researcher was beginning his work at Michigan. (Clark also taught Cerchio's future wife, Danielle Cholewiak, a respected whale researcher in her own right.) "If you give someone like Sal a chance, he's going to discover something." The day after their discovery of six Omura's whales off the island of Nosy Iranja, Cerchio and his team spotted three more specimens, followed the day after that by a second encounter with a mother and calf from the first day. By the end of those three days, Cerchio and his team had collected seven skin samples (procured via a small crossbow that shoots biopsy darts) for genetic analysis, taken more video, and captured recordings of the Omura's song—a throbbing, low-frequency, broadband pulse that lasts about 10 seconds: Bom bom bom bom bom. "This was a new vocalization that had never been described before," Cerchio explained. Excited, Cerchio called his friend and Wildlife Conservation Society colleague Tim Collins, who was in the Republic of Congo at the time. "Dude," Cerchio exclaimed, "I think I found Omura's!" He asked Collins to send him every paper about the whales that Tadasu Yamada and Shiro Wada had ever written. Collins dug up the material and forwarded it to Cerchio. After that, Collins said, "he sent me pictures and said, 'Yeah, damn it, I think we've got Omura's.' " Cerchio and his team spent the next year collecting every bit of information they could about Omura's whales. Scouring their own records, they discovered a few sightings in 2011 and 2012 of what had been marked as Bryde's whales but were, in retrospect, clearly Omura's. They also recorded a number of new sightings in 2013 and 2014. In all, they counted 44 encounters and recorded the songs of five different whales. They also discovered lots of information about how Omura's live. The whales, they found, seemed to swim alone—cruising at 12 miles per hour or so—but within singing distance of others, as though maintaining large personal-space bubbles. Mothers, however, tended to stick close to their calves. And unlike their humpback cousins, which travel huge distances from feeding areas to breeding grounds, Omura's appeared to be homebodies, feeding and breeding, as far as Cerchio could tell, all in the same corner of the world. The team developed theories about everything from what the whales ate (zooplankton) to where they went when they occasionally made themselves scarce (a bit north and south of that same coastline) to the level of risk posed by the offshore oil and gas industries looking to expand into the area (high). Cerchio, in other words, was making a great deal of progress. But before he could begin publicizing his findings, he had to be absolutely certain that he was, in fact, dealing with Omura's whales. So in the fall of 2014, he sent the biopsies he'd collected to a friend from grad school, Alec Lindsay, a biologist at Northern Michigan University. Lindsay compared the samples to the DNA sequences that Wada and his team had published. The results came back on Christmas Eve. "I remember Sal receiving this text message from Alec," said Cholewiak, Cerchio's wife. "He couldn't stop reading it. He was like, 'Oh my God! Oh my God, I can't believe it, this is real!" Within weeks, Cerchio began assembling his observations into a science manuscript. In March 2015, he made his first public presentation of the work at a symposium sponsored by the Cape Cod–based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Alessandro Bocconcelli, a research specialist at the institute, promptly suggested a collaboration and brought Cerchio on board at Woods Hole as a guest investigator. Then, in October of that year, the prestigious Royal Society published Cerchio's paper in the Royal Society Open Science journal. Suddenly, Cerchio was a star. "Local researcher makes first-ever field observations of rare whale," wrote the Boston Globe. CNN contacted him for a video interview. BBC Earth ran a story, as did the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. "I've never received any kind of attention like that," Cerchio said. Colleagues reached out, too, emailing their compliments and congratulations. "I admit to being very jealous," Collins told me. "Omura's, that's just, like a ghost. And I remember thinking, 'God damn it. How come he gets to see Omura's?' I mean Sal's been seeing blue whales, and he saw a right whale one year in south Madagascar, and he's seeing melon-headed whales, amazing oceanic dolphins, and then he gets to add Omura's on top of it?" "I feel like, for him, this has definitely been one of the major, if not the major highlight of his career," Cholewiak told me. "That he actually has found and is working on this first population of recognized Omura's whales has been really significant for him." Not long ago, I visited Cerchio in his office at Woods Hole, where he now works with Bocconcelli. He'd also recently signed on as a visiting scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston. He lives near Woods Hole and often works from home or from Madagascar, which is probably a good thing given the small size of his work space at the Institute. When I met with him, stacks of paper and thick binders lined the room and a rusted canister filled with scraps of metal left over from past experiments moldered in the corner. The office's single window overlooked the harbor. We sat at Cerchio's desk and, on his computer, he called up video his team had taken that day in 2013 when they'd first run into the Omura's whales. On screen, one of the whales surged toward us, mouth agape, then swerved left. She was beautiful—long and serpentine, with a distinctive watercolor wash of light and dark gray across her flank and back. Head on, the markings of an Omura's are unmistakable, with the right side of the jaw white, and the left much darker. Watching the video, it was easy to understand why humans feel so protective of whales, why we've enacted the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act to help save them. Yet whales, on the whole, are under greater threat today than ever before. They're hunted by whalers from countries such as Japan and Iceland; they continue to show up as accidental catch in fishing nets, and they are endangered by everything from climate change to seas made ever noisier by gigantic vessels. Some whales, in other words, are still very much at risk of joining the countless species that go extinct every year. Omura's, with their newly confirmed existence, are a point in the other column. Cerchio told me that he expects to return to Madagascar this fall with the hope of beginning to answer the countless questions that remain about Omura's whales: how far they range, how they interact with each other, when they breed, what they eat in the thin tropical water. To collect the relevant data, Cerchio and Bocconcelli plan to suction-cup sophisticated microcomputers, known as D-Tags, to a whale, while another biologist, Matt Leslie, hopes to fly drones over the whales. Then there are the series of underwater microphones that have been recording the song of the Omura's since Cerchio planted them last fall. Cerchio said he is also collaborating with Tadasu Yamada on a book chapter about the whales. Neither Yamada nor Wada has seen the Omura's in person, but Wada told me that it's been rewarding to see his early work contribute to Cerchio's success. "It was very exciting news," Wada said. "I like to express my respect to his great efforts." As we sat in his office, Cerchio speculated on the ways his work could transcend the Omura's themselves to reveal new insights into related species of whales. But, he said, it's early days, and such hopes may not be realized. But even if they're not, he said, even if all his work does is bring to light the lives of a beautiful and previously unknown animal, that would be enough. "It's exciting as hell," he said. "Discovering things for the first time that no one else has had the opportunity to work on—that's a thrill." Explore further: New study provides first field observations of rare Omura's whales
News Article | March 16, 2016
Experts tracking the majestic marine mammals - among the rarest creatures on the planet - say nearly half the estimated global population of 500 or so animals has been spotted in Cape Cod Bay over the past few springs. They're back again in what looks like record numbers, thrilling amateur photographers and scientists still anguishing over their future. "It's rather extraordinary and somewhat mind-blowing," said Charles "Stormy" Mayo, a senior scientist and director of right whale ecology at the federally-funded Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. North Atlantic right whales have foraged for centuries in Cape Cod Bay, where their numbers were decimated by whalers who hunted them for their oil and plastic-like baleen bone. But until recently, they were seldom spotted in the bay. For a stretch in the late 1990s, fewer than 30 whales were sighted each year, said Mayo, who's been surveying them and their ecosystem since 1984 by boat and plane. "There has been a huge pulse in numbers in the past few years," said Amy Knowlton, a scientist with the New England Aquarium's Right Whale Research Project. "Right whales are probably scouting for food all the time. Maybe when one of them finds it, they call their friends," she said. Each whale has a unique marking on its head, and researchers use those to identify and catalog individuals. The Aquarium, which also closely monitors the population, gives specific animals amusing names such as Kleenex, Snotnose and Wart. Right whales spend most of their time in the western Atlantic, and many are believed to congregate in the Gulf of Maine. They're rarely seen north of the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada's Maritime Provinces. A few venture as far south as coastal Florida and Georgia, mainly females giving birth to calves - something scientists say doesn't happen often enough. Their increasing presence in Cape Cod Bay has caught scientists by surprise. Mayo theorizes that shifting ocean currents - possibly due to global climate change - are pumping more plankton into the bay, even as the whales' traditional feeding grounds off the Maine coast falter. "They're a little like cows in a field. They go away from places that are not good and go to places that are good," he said. Although some right whales arrive in the bay in early December and linger as late as mid-May, their presence generally builds in March and peaks in mid-April, when plankton concentrations are at their highest. The busy waters hold clear and present dangers: a risk of being struck by commercial ships and recreational boats or becoming entangled in nets. Researchers out spotting whales report their whereabouts to state and federal authorities, who in turn alert nearby vessels. Federal law forbids getting within 500 yards of a right whale and requires ships to slow to 10 knots - roughly 11.5 miles per hour. Whale-watch tours steer clear, focusing instead on humpbacks and other comparatively plentiful species. "It's always heartening every time we see individuals and know they're still alive," Knowlton said. "It's only through seeing them and their scars that we can really understand what's going on with them." Explore further: Cape Cod Bay holds hidden risk for dining North Atlantic right whales
News Article | September 1, 2016
Biologist Kate Gavrilchuck advanced to the bow of the zodiac and loaded her crossbow as the boat navigated the rough waters of the Saint Lawrence River, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean on Canada’s East Coast. “Be careful! One whale is right near the boat,” Gavrilchuck shouted to her crewmates, who were struggling to keep the vessel steady in the meter-and-a-half swells. “Veer to the right!” Suddenly the loud exhale of two humpback whales, which can weigh almost 80,000 pounds each, sounded out as they broke water alongside us, the spray from their spouts quickly blown away by the 40 km/h wind gusts. Gavrilchuck recognized one of them, which she called “Tracks,” by sight. Read More: We Watched Gigantic Blue Whale Bones Get 'Degreased' “Tracks is the whale on the left,” she yelled. As the boat veered to portside, she brought the crossbow to her eye and took aim, pointing it right at Tracks. The whale was due to be biopsied. Field biologist Kate Gavrilchuck uses a crossbow to obtain a biopsy sample from a female humpback known to scientists as Tracks. Image: Justin Taus The non-profit Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS), which keeps a research station in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Quebec, on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, is interested in whales—blue whales, especially, but other species, too. This summer out on the storied Canadian river, which links the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, has provided them with more questions than answers, and some new mysteries to solve. They’re seeing fewer baby humpbacks and fin whales in the area, for one thing. Yet sightings of endangered North Atlantic right whales are suddenly, and inexplicably, on the rise. Founded in 1979 by Paris-born biologist Richard Sears, the MICS is recognized as the first organization to undertake long-term studies of the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. A major player in a collaborative project that succeeded in satellite tagging and recording the full winter migration of a blue whale in the North Atlantic for the first time, in 2014, the group’s findings have been instrumental in understanding the movements and distribution of this enigmatic and still under-studied species, which is now designated as “endangered.” One of the MICS’ main research tools is the biopsy performed by launching a modified arrow from a crossbow to collect a small tissue sample as the animal surfaces to breathe. After removing a small plug of its skin and blubber, the arrow bounces off the whale and floats in the water, where it can be retrieved. (This technique is approved by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.) From that little piece of flesh, scientists can glean all kinds of information, including the animal’s sex, what sorts of prey it consumes, and which contaminants are in its body—which in turn describe pollutants present in the animal’s habitat. Biological sampling can complement other research methods to help scientists understand the social structure, reproduction and even the genealogy of each species. As we bounced across the rough waters off Anticosti Island, a buzzing sound rang through the air. It was Gavrilchuck’s arrow flying towards Tracks, the humpback whale, connecting on the first attempt. The arrow bounced off Tracks’ side and floated in the water as the whale submerged. After plucking the arrow from the waves, Gavrilchuck carefully withdrew a two-centimetre long, black-and-beige piece of skin and blubber and placed it in a vial inside a red thermos, where it would stay chilled. The sample would be processed and stored in the MICS laboratory, then sent away for genetic and hormonal analysis. Over the past few seasons, information from biopsy samples, combined with photo identification of individual humpback and fin whales, has allowed the MICS scientists to notice a troubling trend. Since 2011, they haven’t observed many sexually mature females in the company of calves. This year, only four humpback mother-calf duos have been seen in the estuary by the MICS, they told me, although approximately 30 mature females have been identified—a reproduction rate of close to 10 per cent, explained research coordinator Christian Ramp. While it's hard to give a firm number of how many calves were seen prior to 2011 (the numbers can fluctuate), in a good year, the team might observe 12 to 18 different calves, he said. That's a worrying drop. These scientists haven’t observed one single fin whale calf in the estuary this year either, although approximately 30 mature females have been sighted, he added. Tracks is one of the many female humpbacks to have been observed without a calf this year, and the team hopes to find out why. Robert Michaud, president and director at the non-profit Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur le mammifères marins, a marine mammal research group that also operates in the Saint Lawrence, says that he suspects his organization is witnessing the same trend in other parts of the estuary. Causes of a seemingly low reproduction rate will be hard to confirm, he added. And they might also be different for both species. That same day, out on the Saint Lawrence and far off on the pale-blue horizon, the MICS team spotted the V-shaped spout that is characteristic of the rare North Atlantic right whale. They raced against the swells to reach it, preparing their cameras as the boat rushed over the waves. The team’s most utilized research method is photo identification. The station, which is the official curator of the North Atlantic blue whale catalogues, is home to thousands of whale pictures, some of them in black-and-white. Researchers sort through newly captured photographs to make matches with older ones by comparing the whale's’ skin pigmentation patterns, scars, and other unique characteristics, like fluke and fin shapes. A match can reveal important details about migration and lifespan—like when a specific blue whale was photographed near Pico Island in the Portuguese Azores in 2014, and matched with a photograph snapped across the Atlantic near the Mingan Archipelago, on the east coast of Canada, some 30 years earlier. Team member Viri Jimenez looks through old photographs of blue whales at the MICS research station in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Quebec. Image: Justin Taus That day on the Saint Lawrence, the zodiac reached the right whale just in time to photograph it graciously lifting its large black fluke high out of the water, then diving deep. These pictures would be sent to the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., where the North Atlantic right whale catalogue is based.There, scientists might be able to identify the individual animal by matching it against other known whales in the collection. Decimated by whaling, the current North Atlantic right whale population (which was estimated at 465 animals, as of 2011) is protected in both Canada and the US. The MICS team had spotted only four since early 2014, and none at all for a few years prior, said Ramp. So it’s surprising that, this year alone, the MICS has seen 20 North Atlantic right whales. Total reported sightings in the Saint Lawrence are close to 50, he continued. Nobody knows why, exactly, there are suddenly so many whales here this year. “These whales spend much of their lives aggregating in areas of high plankton concentration,” explained Charles Mayo, senior scientist and director of the right whale ecology program at the non-profit Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. “I imagine that if we could get the best profiles of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence right now, we’d find that there is an unusual concentration of their primary food, which is copepods,” a type of small crustacean, he added. Mayo stressed that it is possible for whales to roam over very large areas, sometimes hundreds of miles, in search of food. The whales currently in the Saint Lawrence are likely the same ones previously identified in areas like the Bay of Fundy or the Gulf of Maine, he added. Shifts in oceanic currents and other environmental variations influenced by climate change could potentially be contributing to their sudden increased presence, Ramp added. More whale sightings in the Saint Lawrence sounds like a good thing, but it could mean trouble for them. Many sightings are occurring in maritime shipping lanes. Measures have been enacted to reduce ship strikes with right whales in other Canadian habitats, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, said Moira Brown, a senior Right whale scientist at the New England Aquarium. “More research is needed to better define where right whales aggregate in the Gulf, to identify potential critical habitat and to find out which ships are using the area,” said Brown. Several groups, including the MICS, relay their information about sightings to the shipping industry, she said. A MICS zodiac searches the waters for signs of whales near Anticosti Island, Quebec. Image: Justin Taus As the winds increased, blowing blustery waves over the Saint Lawrence, the MICS team decided to call it a day. They photographed one more whale, a finback, on the wavy ride back to port. “Because whales are long-lived animals, long-term studies like ours are necessary,” said Sears, who is planning another expedition to tag blue whales off the coast of Gaspé in September. This type of study could eventually help explain why humpback and fin whale calf sightings are much less common in the Gulf since 2011—while endangered right whale sightings seem to be more common. In the process, scientists might make some new discoveries about the effects of climate change and other pressures, anthropogenic and otherwise, that are affecting these animals. Even after almost 40 years of research with the MICS, Sears said, “there is still a long way to go.” Image Above: A North Atlantic right whale surfaces in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on August 14, 2016. This whale is one of 20 North Atlantic right whales seen in the Saint Lawrence by the MICS this year. Image: Mingan Island Cetacean Study
News Article | August 7, 2016
Researchers in Massachusetts this week captured footage of a great white shark feasting on a minke whale carcass, off the coast of Cape Cod. The sighting led to the temporary and precautionary closure of three popular tourist beaches. The shark’s appearance was part of a resurgence for the species along the north-eastern US Atlantic coast. Researchers attribute this to a rebound in the population of gray seals, a favorite great white shark food when dead whales are not on the menu. James Sulikowski, a professor of marine science at the University of New England in Portland, Maine, said: “They’ve been congregating in areas like the Cape because there’s a lot of food there, and they like that food. It’s a source for them, and they don’t have to work too hard for it.” In a statement, the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) said that by Thursday the 11ft whale carcass was in “radically different condition” from its discovery the day before. “At least two white sharks were attending the whale,” it said, “and had removed the tongue, internal organs and most of the muscle. The carcass was still floating but was essentially little more than the spinal column and skull.” Beaches at Noons Landing, Cold Storage and Beach Point were subsequently closed to swimmers. Sulikowski is based approximately four hours north of Truro, where the white sharks were spotted eating the minke carcass. Since a slate of new conservation measures went into effect in the 1990s, he said, white sharks have also appeared near his patch of coast. “It would only make sense to see more and more sharks up our way, which honestly is a really good thing,” he said. “Everybody thinks there are these crazy sharks out to be raging predators, but they focus on the dead, the sick, the dying. They actually strengthen and cull older populations of seals.” In late July, a possible great white sighting off Duxbury beach, near Cape Cod, prompted a warning that beachgoers swam at their own risk. This week, another unconfirmed sighting placed a great white in Wellfleet harbor, while swimmers were whistled out of the water off Martha’s Vineyard. According to the Shark Research Foundation, however, only seven shark attacks on humans have been documented in Massachusetts since 1830. Three were fatal, all of them before 1936. Two were off Cape Cod. Great white sharks were portrayed as rare in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, which was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. Researchers now believe substantial populations congregate around the long hook of Cape Cod in summer before heading to Florida in winter. In the north, whale carcasses are a vital food source. In the 1980s, studies of shark populations indicated precipitous decline, by as much as 79% in the white shark’s case. Data from recent studies shows some populations have rebounded, especially around Massachusetts. In a 2014 study published in Plos One, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association wrote: “The recovery of north-west Atlantic gray seal populations over the last decade and their increasing concentrations at specific sites along Cape Cod, Massachusetts, appears to be producing new localized summer feeding aggregations for white sharks.” Sulikowski said: “It’s not the doom and gloom, like it used to be. We’ve made great strides to protect those species. You can see they’re rebounding, which is good.” However, many tournaments still encourage shark fishing, especially along the north-east US coast. According to fishermen the Guardian spoke to last month at a tournament in Rhode Island, many such contests are difficult to police. “You’re always going to have species that need extra protection, just because of their past history,” said Sulikowski of the great white sharks. “We just need to make sure we reach out to other countries and continue this effect.”