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NOAA asks for the help of recreational boaters in saving critically endangered right whales

By Daria Blackwell

Daria Blackwell, Vice Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club and boating journalist, had the opportunity to meet with three scientists from NOAA who are pivotal in an effort to save North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) from extinction. They described resources being made available to recreational boaters and requested boaters to help in the effort to protect whales from being struck by boats along the US East Coast.

For some time now, commercial shipping has been receiving information about right whale habitat use patterns in order to help protect these whales from ship strikes. US Law prohibits vessels 65 feet (19.8 m) or more from operating at speeds higher than 10 knots in Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs), waters where North Atlantic right whales are known to feed, congregate, and breed. Additionally, NOAA has sent temporary notifications, known as Dynamic Management Areas, asking large ships to slow down to 10 knots or less for two weeks in areas where right whales have been observed outside of SMAs. North Atlantic right whales are in particular danger because their dwindling numbers – only around 400 individuals remain – leaving them critically endangered. In 2017, NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), which is an emergency declaration, due to the elevated number of deaths experienced by this population. Any size vessel can critically injure a whale, especially a calf. This season already two calves have been struck in US waters.

Starting in the 2020 season, scientists at NOAA are expanding their notification program to vessels of all sizes and also including acoustic information to help boaters avoid areas where these endangered right whales are detected at a given time or to at least slow down and keep a close watch to minimize whale strikes. Launched in August and focusing on the East Coast of the United States, the right whale Slow Zones initiative uses maps to indicate boxed areas where boat speeds of 10 knots or less can help save Right Whales’ lives.

Mariners are requested to route around or reduce speed to less than 10 knots in right whale Slow Zones where whales have been reported by visual sightings or acoustic detections. Scientist Jean Higgins said, “Visual and acoustic data provide us with the ability to create a road map of areas on the ocean where whales have been seen or heard. We are asking all boaters to slow down to 10 knots or less or to avoid these areas if possible.” Approaching right whales at a distance closer than 500 yards is a violation of Federal and State Laws.

Boaters can access right whale Slow Zone information through an interactive map on NOAA’s website, by subscribing to email or text notifications for right whale Slow Zones under NOAA Fisheries New England and mid-Atlantic subscription topics, or through the Whale Alert app.  The Whale Alert app, available for both iOS and Android devices, provides close to real time information about whale presence. In addition, it enables mariners to report sightings thereby contributing to the body of knowledge of where whales can be found at any given time. Sightings can also be reported by calling the USCG on VHF channel 16 or by telephone to two locations.

According to acoustics expert Dr Danielle Cholewiak, the unique vocalizations of right whales known as an upcall help to identify them and distinguish them from other species. “We use hydrophones, which are underwater microphones, to listen for whale vocalizations. This is called passive acoustic monitoring, and we use these tools to monitor the distribution of right whales and many other species.  We also cooperate with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which uses underwater gliders and stationary buoys that listen for North Atlantic right whales, as well as a broader suite of baleen whales.” The Robots4Whales automatically detect sounds, identify the species based on characteristics of the sounds, and report which species have been heard to scientists on shore via satellite in near real time. The scientists then review the detections and confirm the presence of that species.

When asked if there are any means by which boaters can ward off encounters with whales, such as turning on depth sounders, Danielle replied, “Baleen whales specialize in low-frequency communication. Many echosounders, depending on their frequency, may be at the limits of or beyond the hearing range of most baleen whales. Other species, such as killer whales and dolphins, hear higher-frequency sounds better and may be more likely to hear the type of echosounders used by recreational boaters. However, there is no evidence to suggest that echosounders would be an effective deterrent and turning on a sounder creates more noise in the water. Echosounders should be used for navigational safety as needed, but we wouldn’t recommend using an echosounder as a deterrent in the vicinity of whales.” Instead, when whales are in the area, boaters are encouraged to slow down and keep a lookout to avoid accidental collisions.

Allison Ferreira, Communications Lead for the Greater Atlantic Fisheries Office underscored the importance of getting recreational boaters involved and spreading the word about the vulnerability of right whales in particular. “All boaters can help save right whales and other species with a few simple steps,” she said. “Here’s what anyone out there on the water can do to help.”

       Learn where the Slow Zones are – sign up for notifications

       Check the app to see where whales have been sighted or heard

       Avoid or Slow Down to 10 knots or less when entering a Seasonal Management Area

       Keep a close watch and wide distance from whales in your vicinity

       Report all sightings

Learn more about the Slow Zones and Whale Alert App on the NOAA website. Listen to the different species of whales on the NOAA Fisheries site.


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