Whale protection needs added buoyancy

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With three reported whale deaths by ship strike last summer, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and other New England-based conservation groups have been faced with increased management pressures.

Meeting the challenge are local volunteers-collaborating with researchers and federal authorities-to give whale protection added buoyancy.

In the mission to protect cetaceans, collaboration has become a key strength for environmental groups. “Today [conservation] is much more complicated because you are dealing with so many different entities,” said biologist Sue Rocca, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Massachusetts office. “Coordination and logistics needs have increased… and [these] volunteers should be thanked for going above and beyond.”

With the growth of shipping commerce and resource scarcity for conservation efforts, volunteers have emerged as important allies in the struggle to protect whales worldwide. Local reporting and logistical aid have been shown to improve efficiency and collaboration between government and private agencies.

Spanning over 800 square miles of ocean north of Cape Cod, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) is a cradle of life for whales and other marine creatures. Research and whale protection groups monitor the area, but the opportunity to help with conservation efforts can still surface unexpectedly.

In July this year, for example, one whale-watching afternoon turned into a joint expedition to locate and retrieve a whale named Tofu, a 2 and a half year old, 10-ton humpback whale, struck and killed by a marine vessel in Massachusetts Bay.

Captain John Dennen on board a Captain John and Son whale watch vessel spotted Tofu floating in the sanctuary and contacted the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).

The whale came to rest at the Bourne Landfill through the efforts and support of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service, Cape Cod Stranding Network, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, the SBNMS, Manager Tim Moll of Brewer Plymouth Marine, and countless others.

Humpbacks are one among many species of endangered and federally-protected whales which make their home in the Gulf of Maine. Under the 1994 Marine Mammal Protection Act, whale populations are measured in terms of their Potential Biological Removal rate (PBR), a calculation of how many whales can be removed from a population without reducing the population’s breeding potential.

“When a species is over PBR, it means that too many are dying due to unnatural causes to keep the population at an optimal level,” said WDCS Senior Biologist, Regina Asmutis-Silvia.

“We know that vessel strikes and entanglements are the two biggest threats to these animals in our waters, [and] it is important to understand the risks in order to mitigate them.”

According to reports from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Great South Channel in the southern Gulf of Maine supports the largest population density of cetaceans in the Northeast US continental shelf, with at least 13 species of whale and dolphin.

Research from NOAA and other groups indicate the gulf is a key territory for whales for two primary reasons. Seasonal whale migratory routes crosscut the area, and an abundance of small schooling fish such as sand lance, Atlantic mackerel and herring provide a rich food supply.

Five corridors of vessel traffic cut through the SBNMS, and two corridors run through an area of critical right whale habitat in the Great South Channel. Closer to shore in the heavily trafficked Boston Harbor shipping channel, recreational and commercial fishing, tourist boats, and military vessels operate daily.