Tag Archives: NOAA

A Species on the Brink

The Society for Marine Mammalogy states that there are 89 species of cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise). The smallest of these, a species of porpoise known as the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), is in the greatest danger of going extinct. Many of us on the East Coast are much more familiar with the plight of the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). We certainly give the right whale a fair amount of deserved attention within the Whaling Museum. But, because the vaquita is a Pacific Ocean animal, with a very limited range, it does not get much attention along the Atlantic seaboard.

Vaquita. Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

However, the vaquita’s situation is so dire, that it is quite likely that in the next two years, it will get nationally recognized when it is declared extinct. As of mid-May, according to the Director of the international watchdog group, Elephant Action League, the population estimate for the vaquita was 12 individuals (the EAL uses sonic buoys to track echolocation among individual animals). Other reports put the number at 30 animals. The population in 2008 was estimated to be 340. According to Mexico News Daily, on June 29, four vaquita have been found dead so far in 2018.

An adult vaquita (the name means ‘little cow’ in Spanish) is five feet (1.5m) in length and weighs 120 pounds (54kg), with a bit of variation between males and females. They have an estimated life span of 20-25 years. They have dark rings around their eyes and dark markings around their mouths that look similar to lipstick.

The vaquita was discovered and officially recognized as a distinct species in 1958. As with most endangered animals, its tenuous situation is a function of a specialization or limitation in its habits and habitat, and its proximity to humans. In this case, the vaquita has the most limited range of any cetacean. It lives only in the upper Gulf of California, an area approximately the same size as the state of Rhode Island.

Range and refuge map. Image courtesy of NOAA

Unfortunately, a similarly sized fish, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) also lives in the Gulf of California. This fish is the target of fishermen who use gillnets to catch the fish, remove their swim bladders, dry them, and then sell the bladders to buyers and smugglers in China and Hong Kong who are willing to pay $4000 per pound.  There are many in these countries who think, mistakenly, that the swim bladders have medicinal properties. The dried bladders are a main ingredient in a soup known as “fish maw”. The totoaba is listed by NOAA as an endangered species.

Historical totoaba photo – Proyecto Vaquita; provided by Aquarium of the Pacific.

The vaquita get entangled in gillnets targeting totoaba and drown. This fishery was closed down in 1975, but illegal totoaba fishing continues to catch and kill vaquita. Despite the fact that the Mexican government created a vaquita biosphere reserve in 1993, and placed a ban on all gillnets in 2015 in the vaquita’s habitat, the population continues to decline. Many of the area residents rely on fishing for income, the attraction of a big payday from totoaba swim bladders is a strong one, and enforcement is spotty.

Several citizen initiatives, including Pied for a Porpoise (yours truly was one of those who took a pie in the face), fundraisers and curriculum have been created to spread the word among visitors to aquaria and zoos, and to the general public, especially on the U.S. and Mexican West Coast. But, until the enforcement of all fishing bans is consistent, effective and unrelenting, this species, like the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) in 2006, will go extinct in our lifetime.

One of those citizen initiatives is taking place this weekend, International Save the Vaquita Day.

Where to learn more:

www.iucn-csg.org

www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/vaquita.htm

http://pronature-noreste.org  (Spanish)

https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Divisions=PRD&ParentMenuId=678&id=21640

I extend my thanks to David Bader, Director of Education at the Aquarium of the Pacific (AOP), for providing access to a Dropbox full of information: the AOP for their energy and persistence in educating the public about the vaquita, and the Texas State Aquarium for starting #pied4aporpoise.

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A Small but Critical Victory for Right Whales

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Phoenix and calf. Sea to Shore Alliance photo.

Five years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enacted a seasonal ship strike rule to protect migrating, endangered North Atlantic right whales (NARW). This rule requires that vessels 65 feet (19.8m) or longer limit themselves to a maximum speed of 10 mph (16 kph) in designated zones (Seasonal Management Areas) during specified periods of time. For the Northeast, that meant January 1 – March 15 in Cape Cod Bay, March 1 – April 30 off Race Pt in Provincetown and April 1 – July 31 in the Great South Channel. The time frames for the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast reflect the months that NARWs are expected to be in those regions. This rule, proven to be effective so far, was important for the protection of this critically endangered species, the population of which is estimated at approximately 500 animals.

However, the rule had an end date attached to it, December 9, 2013. A year ago, the NBWM hosted colleagues from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, (Provincetown) Center for Coastal Studies, Humane Society of the U.S., Rhode Island Audubon and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium to announce a campaign to convince NOAA to drop the end date (also known as a sunset clause) from this rule. We debuted the campaign video ‘Act Right Now Save a Species’, held a panel discussion, and made a petition available for signature by any citizen. In the past year, over 145,000 comments were sent to NOAA and 75,000+ people signed the petition.

Today NOAA announced that it has dropped the sunset clause from the Ship Strike Rule, thus making the rule permanent.  Collisions between whales and vessels are typically fatal. Two of the skeletons that hang in our Museum, the North Atlantic right whale with fetus, and the blue whale were killed by vessel strikes. By forcing vessels to slow down during those times when NARWs are expected to be in a given area, both whales and mariners have greater opportunity to steer clear of each other. This is a win-win situation and has proven to be much less of a burden on vessel operators than previously estimated.

The issue of entanglement has yet to be solved. But on a rainy day, NOAA’s decision is indeed a bright beam of excellent news for an endangered species and for the dozens of people who dedicate themselves to studying and protecting the North Atlantic right whale.

 

Protection for N.Atl. Right Whales May Become Permanent

Sixth months ago, on Saturday, December 9, the Whaling Museum hosted a press conference to announce the campaign to make the 2008 NOAA ‘Ship Strike Rule’ permanent. This rule was put in place for five years to test its effectiveness in protecting North Atlantic right whales in their habitat along the east coast of the United States. The rule dictates that during seasons in which NARWs are known to be in a given area at a certain time of the year ((e.g. in Cape Cod Bay from January 1 – May 15) ships greater than 65 feet must slow to 10 knots. The time periods for these slower speeds vary based on where the whales are expected to be during the year. This rule has proven to be very effective. No whales have been reported as having been struck in these Seasonal Management Areas since the rule went into effect. The cost to mariners is less than anticipated. The rule is having the desired effect.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, June 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened a 60-day comment period for the proposal to make Speed Restrictions to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales (50 CFR 224.10), colloquially known as the Ship Strike Rule, permanent. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Rhode Island Audubon Society, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, select faculty from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Right Whale team from the New England Aquarium and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) all support making this rule permanent. It could certainly be made stronger by expanding the restriction to all vessels, not just those 65 feet or longer. But the simple elimination of the ‘sunset date’ of December 9, 2013 would be a testament to the effectiveness of this rule and a big step in expanding protections for a species whose population numbers somewhere around 500.

North Atlantic Right Whale female and calf. NOAA photo.

North Atlantic Right Whale female and calf. NOAA photo.

We invite you to learn more about the effectiveness of this rule by viewing the campaign video commissioned by WDC. This video features excellent footage of NARWs and the Museum’s right whale skeleton, Reyna – a whale killed by ship strike, and commentary from several members of the NARWC. Your comments to NOAA are welcome and encouraged.

Fun Right Whale Day

Kids visit the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance craft tables during Right Whale Day 2012.

The families arrived early and came in a steady stream between 10a – 2p yesterday for Right Whale Day.  They worked their way through the right whale obstacle course created by our High School Apprentices; created origami and whale tale necklaces with New England Coastal Wildlife staff and tried on the blubber glove to test the insulating capacity of whale blubber. They were greeted by Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society staff as they entered WDCS’s 48ft inflatable right whale and learned important right whale information from NOAA education staff.  Many stayed for some tasty cake topped with a frosted right whale. We wrapped up the day with a 2pm viewing of Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship, a new documentary that highlights four innovative collaborations that have led to increased protection of our ocean resources.

We thank NECWA, WDCS, NOAA, our high school apprentices and WM docents and Facilities staff for their help in making yesterday’s festivities a success.

Young visitors try to 'swim' through the propeller strike obstacle safely.

“Whale Alert” app Available to Mariners

Whale Alert screen view. Image provided by NOAA.

One of the hottest whale-related stories on the internet involves a new iPad and iPhone app that has been created to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.  NOAA has teamed up with a variety of partners to develop an application, available for free, that provides near real-time information about the location of NARWs within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the shipping lanes of Boston. The application also provides information on conservation measures in the areas that the ships are transiting.

This a clever, well-thought method to protect a species with a population number hovering between 450-500 individuals. It makes excellent use of new technology and research to provide all necessary information to those who ply our coastal waters to make their living, it assists sanctuary managers in knowing the movements of whales within the sanctuary, and it does so at no cost to mariners.

The other hot story involves a potential substitute for the ambrein that is removed from ambergris. Ambrein is a prized compound for use in perfumes. That will be tomorrow’s blog.

Scientists Successfully Use Sedation to Help Disentangle North Atlantic Right Whale

January 15th a very special day for NOAA scientists and its state and nonprofit partners, and for the the young female North Atlantic Right whale who was disentangled from ropes and wire mesh fishing gear. Read the full news report on NOAA’s website , it begins:

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service and its state and nonprofit partners successfully used at-sea chemical sedation to help cut the remaining ropes from a young North Atlantic right whale on January 15 off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Fla. The sedative given to the whale allowed the disentanglement team to safely approach the animal and remove 50 feet of rope which was wrapped through its mouth and around its flippers.

The sedative given to the whale allowed the disentanglement team to safely approach the animal. (Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

This is only the second time a free-swimming whale has been successfully sedated to enable disentanglement efforts. The first time a whale was successfully sedated and disentangled was in March 2009 off the coast of Florida.

“Our recent progress with chemical sedation is important because it’s less stressful for the animal, and minimizes the amount of time spent working on these animals while maximizing the effectiveness of disentanglement operations,” said Jamison Smith, Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “This disentanglement was especially complex, but proved successful due to the detailed planning and collective expertise of the many response partners involved.”

At the Museum: Northeast Fisheries Summit

March 8th forum to be held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Mayor Scott W. Lang has announced the Northeast Fisheries Summit, a day-long discussion that will focus on the future and sustainability of the fishing industry in New England and near- and mid-Atlantic ports. The Summit is co-hosted by the Mayor’s Ocean and Fisheries Council, the School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute. Expected to attend is Eric Scwhaab, the newly appointed Assistant Administrator for Fisheries with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Congressman Barney Frank; and industry leaders, scientists, elected officials, environmentalists, and government officials from across the Northeastern region.

“We all recognize the importance of achieving a sustainable fisheries management plan,” said Mayor Lang. “I look forward to an open discussion about how we can ensure a balance of sensible conservation practices with the economic vitality of the fishing industry. It is appropriate that this discussion take place in New Bedford, the nation’s top-ranked value port.”

The Summit will include panel discussions on catch shares and sectors, scallops and scallop by-catch, and amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The Summit will begin at 9:00am on March 8th at the Whaling Museum, located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in New Bedford. The public is welcome to attend.