26 Nov 2013: Report

A North Atlantic Mystery:
Case of the Missing Whales

Endangered North Atlantic right whales are disappearing from customary feeding grounds off the U.S. and Canadian coasts and appearing in large numbers in other locations, leaving scientists to wonder if shifts in climate may be behind the changes.

by rebecca kessler

Every summer and fall, endangered North Atlantic right whales congregate in the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to gorge on zooplankton. Researchers have documented the annual feast since 1980, and well over 100 whales typically attend, a significant portion of the entire species. Only this year, they didn't. Just a dozen right whales trickled in —
Breaching North Atlantic Right Whale
New England Aquarium
Right whales were not found in their usual numbers this summer in the Bay of Fundy.
a record low in the New England Aquarium's 34-year-old monitoring program. And that comes on the heels of two other low-turnout years, 2010 and 2012.

Numbers of the critically endangered marine mammal have been ticking up in recent years just past 500 individuals, so no one thinks the low turnout in the Bay of Fundy augurs a decline in the species as a whole. The right whales must have gone elsewhere. But where? And more importantly, why?

"Our whales have been missing in their normal habitat areas, where we’ve learned to expect them over three and a half decades," says Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the aquarium who runs the monitoring program. "It’s quite shocking when you go out there day after day after day and you don’t see any right whales."
It’s clear to scientists that the whales’ new itinerary must signal a shifting food supply.

This change in North Atlantic right whale behavior is occurring against a backdrop of major climate-related ecosystem shifts taking place throughout the northwest Atlantic Ocean. While Brown and other right whale researchers are not ready to attribute changes in the species’ feeding or migratory patterns to any one factor, including global warming, what is clear to them is that the right whales’ new itinerary must signal a shifting food supply. A zooplankton species called Calanus finmarchicus is the whales’ mainstay. Researchers reported an unusual scarcity of the zooplankton in the Bay of Fundy this summer. By the same token, in Cape Cod Bay, where right whales have been unusually plentiful, other scientists have been documenting increasing concentrations — so much so that the normally invisible creatures noticeably color the water.

Other ecosystem shifts are afoot in the northwest Atlantic off the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada. Sea surface temperatures in waters such as the Gulf of Maine are rising and various marine species, including cod and red hake, are shifting their ranges northward, according to recent studies. Increasing precipitation, the rapid disappearance of Arctic sea ice, and the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Canada are all expected to pour more freshwater into the northwest Atlantic, causing increased stratification of ocean waters and changes in the abundance and distribution of phytoplankton and zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain, studies show.

The missing right whales are a nagging mystery to marine biologists and were the hot topic at an annual meeting of right-whale cognoscenti this month in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Once numbering in the many
As curious as where the right whales aren’t is where they are.
thousands, North Atlantic right whales are among the rarest animals on earth, haunted by the specter of extinction after centuries of whaling. Right whales were protected under whaling conventions enacted in 1935 and 1949, but today accidental collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear pose grave threats.

As curious as where the right whales aren’t is where they are. Brown’s team spotted a reasonable number on their other late-summer feeding ground, which lies southeast of Nova Scotia — but not the ones they expected. Instead of what Brown calls "wise old whales" typical of the area, they found juveniles and a mother-calf pair more characteristic of the Bay of Fundy. She also received credible reports of right whales far north of their usual summer feeding grounds, where they’d never been reported: two animals this summer near Cape Breton on Nova Scotia, and two last summer off northern Newfoundland.

But the real trove of right whales has been in Cape Cod Bay in winter. Whales have always stopped there to feed en masse, but the last four winters the numbers have skyrocketed, according to Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of a program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies that has been monitoring right whales in the bay since 1984. "Shockingly,

Click to Enlarge
“Northwest

Right whale habitats in the northwest Atlantic, off Canadian and U.S. east coasts.
we’ve had…on average approximately half of the population of the North Atlantic Ocean in our bay," and possibly as much as three-quarters, Mayo says. "This is really kind of Right Whale Kingdom."

Not only are more right whales stopping in than ever, but they are gathering up to three months earlier — late November or early December as opposed to February. They’re also coming for more than just the buffet now, as they’ve been spotted mating between meals. Another first, according to Mayo: Last January a calf was born in Cape Cod Bay. Previously all known births occurred off the coast of Georgia or Florida, 1,200 miles south.

Dramatic though all the changes are among right whales, Brown and Mayo say it’s hard to know what to make of them. Both are quick to point out that even their teams’ painstaking, long-term efforts to document the right whales’ comings and goings only give them a small window on the animals’ lives. Brown says her lost whales could well have been feeding contentedly at some remote zooplankton hotspot they've always visited, unbeknownst to people.

The cause of the shift of the right whales’ favorite prey, C. finmarchicus, is uncertain. Topping the list of suspects is climate change-driven warming in the Gulf of Maine. In 2012, the gulf was at the epicenter of an immense oceanic heat wave stretching from Cape Hatteras to Iceland, which resulted from a confluence of climate change and an unusually warm year, according to Andrew Pershing, a biological oceanographer with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of Maine. Gulf water temperatures reached 5 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than
Right whales and their prey aren’t the only species on the move in the region.
average, approaching conditions not expected until the century’s end.

The warm waters could be producing fewer or less-nutritious C. finmarchicus, or shifting the currents that carry them, according to Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. With the heat wave dissipating, Baumgartner says he’s hopeful right whales will soon return to the Bay of Fundy. In the long run, however, he says their disappearance could be a harbinger of things to come. In the Gulf of Maine, C. finmarchicus is at the southern edge of its range, and Baumgartner and Pershing note that global warming may drive the zooplankton northward for good. If so, right whales and numerous other marine animals that depend on C. finmarchicus will likely follow, revolutionizing the gulf’s ecosystem.

Right whales and their prey aren’t the only species on the move in the region. "Really what we’re seeing is a food-chain shift right up from plankton through fish into marine mammals and birds," Brown says. For the past few years her team has been spotting sperm whales in the Bay of Fundy, where they’d only seen a single one since 1980. In the next water body north, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, researchers rarely spotted more than
North Atlantic Right Whale callosities
New England Aquarium
Right whales have distinctive raised white patches, called callosities, on their faces.
a handful of endangered fin and humpback whales a day this summer, down from several dozen in years past, according to Richard Sears, founder of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study, which has been surveying whales there since 1979. The few that came arrived a month or so later than usual and gathered in uncustomary areas, while throngs of whales seemed to linger outside the bay. Sears has heard reliable reports of humpbacks visiting Baffin Island recently, far to the north of their usual stomping grounds. He says the reasons behind his team’s unusual observations are unclear, though they undoubtedly relate to the whales’ krill and fish diet.

Other examples include puffins nesting weeks later than usual and having trouble fledging their young, possibly due to changing fish supplies. Leatherback sea turtles are heading south through Cape Cod waters two months later than in autumns past, and in greater numbers. More than 50 have been snarled in fishing gear so far this fall, up from an average of five or six, says Scott Landry, director of the whale rescue program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Cod, lobsters, and northern shrimp — current or recent pillars of the Gulf of Maine’s fishing industry — seem to be
Scientists note that as warming continues, marine ecosystems may be thrown badly out of whack.
decamping into cooler northern waters, even as southern species like black sea bass and longfin squid move in.

Many of the shifts are consistent with climate change-induced warming, Pershing says. Other scientists note that as warming continues, marine ecosystems such as the Northwest Atlantic may be thrown badly out of whack. With the temperature and salinity of the ocean changing, and with spring arriving earlier and fall later, the timing and location of phytoplankton blooms and zooplankton abundance will also likely shift, throwing off the timing of feeding, migration, and reproduction of many species.

The right whales’ calving season starts soon off the coasts of Florida and Georgia. If the calves are plentiful and the adults look healthy, experts will feel better about their summertime meanderings, Brown says. Meanwhile, she and her team are planning what to do if the right whales are missing again next summer in the Bay of Fundy.

They have already started reaching out to fishermen and other mariners for help spotting whales further afield. A new version of an app put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help mariners steer clear of right whales will let them easily report sightings. And Baumgartner recently led development of autonomous underwater gliders that record, identify, and report back calls of right, fin, humpback, and sei whales, all endangered species. Brown would love to turn these gliders loose in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which she suspects may hold unidentified right whale habitat and could become a refuge if Fundy overheats. Scientists are even bandying about the idea of outfitting C. finmarchicus-eating seabirds with transmitters to see if the birds might lead them to the right whales.

"Something has changed," Brown says. "The animals are responding to it. We’re trailing along behind trying to find where they went."



POSTED ON 26 Nov 2013 IN Biodiversity Climate Climate Oceans Science & Technology Water North America 

COMMENTS


Fishermen would be more helpful if every time something changes we did not have more rules and laws shoved down our throats before science and all the tree-huggers find out what is going on. As with most federal and state goverment agencies, it is always ready-fire-aim when it should be ready-aim-fire.
Posted by Walter Day on 28 Nov 2013


This whale is a big nightmare for us here in the Red Sea.
Posted by john on 01 Dec 2013


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


rebecca kesslerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Kessler is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. A former senior editor at Natural History, her work has been published by ClimateCentral.org, Conservation, Discover, Natural History, ScienceNOW, ScienceInsider, and Environmental Health Perspectives. She has previously written for Yale Environment 360 about efforts to restore prairies in the U.S. Midwest and initiatives to regulate the global aquarium trade.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


Mining Showdown in Andes
Over Unique Páramo Lands

High-altitude neotropical ecosystems known as páramos are increasingly at risk in Colombia and elsewhere in South America as major mining companies seek to exploit rich deposits of gold and other minerals. Such projects, scientists warn, could have serious impacts on critical water supplies.
READ MORE

Unsustainable Seafood: A New
Crackdown on Illegal Fishing

A recent study shows that a surprisingly large amount of the seafood sold in U.S. markets is caught illegally. In a series of actions over the last few months, governments and international regulators have started taking aim at stopping this illicit trade in contraband fish.
READ MORE

UN Panel Looks to Renewables
As the Key to Stabilizing Climate

In its latest report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes a strong case for a sharp increase in low-carbon energy production, especially solar and wind, and provides hope that this transformation can occur in time to hold off the worst impacts of global warming.
READ MORE

New Satellite Boosts Research
On Global Rainfall and Climate

Although it may seem simple, measuring rainfall worldwide has proven to be a difficult job for scientists. But a recently launched satellite is set to change that, providing data that could help in understanding whether global rainfall really is increasing as the planet warms.
READ MORE

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Mining Showdown in Andes
Over Unique Páramo Lands

by chris kraul
High-altitude neotropical ecosystems known as páramos are increasingly at risk in Colombia and elsewhere in South America as major mining companies seek to exploit rich deposits of gold and other minerals. Such projects, scientists warn, could have serious impacts on critical water supplies.
READ MORE

Unsustainable Seafood: A New
Crackdown on Illegal Fishing

by richard conniff
A recent study shows that a surprisingly large amount of the seafood sold in U.S. markets is caught illegally. In a series of actions over the last few months, governments and international regulators have started taking aim at stopping this illicit trade in contraband fish.
READ MORE

A Public Relations Drive to
Stop Illegal Rhino Horn Trade

by mike ives
Conservation groups are mounting campaigns to persuade Vietnamese consumers that buying rhino horn is decidedly uncool. But such efforts are likely to succeed only as part of a broader initiative to crack down on an illicit trade that is decimating African rhino populations.
READ MORE

On Fracking Front, A Push
To Reduce Leaks of Methane

by roger real drouin
Scientists, engineers, and government regulators are increasingly turning their attention to solving one of the chief environmental problems associated with fracking for natural gas and oil – significant leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
READ MORE

Scientists Focus on Polar Waters
As Threat of Acidification Grows

by jo chandler
A sophisticated and challenging experiment in Antarctica is the latest effort to study ocean acidification in the polar regions, where frigid waters are expected to feel most acutely the ecological impacts of acidic conditions not seen in millions of years.
READ MORE

On Ravaged Tar Sands Lands,
Big Challenges for Reclamation

by ed struzik
The mining of Canada’s tar sands has destroyed large areas of sensitive wetlands in Alberta. Oil sands companies have vowed to reclaim this land, but little restoration has occurred so far and many scientists say it is virtually impossible to rebuild these complex ecosystems.
READ MORE

A New Leaf in the Rainforest:
Longtime Villain Vows Reform

by rhett butler
Few companies have done as much damage to the world’s tropical forests as Asia Pulp & Paper. But under intense pressure from its customers and conservation groups, APP has embarked on a series of changes that could significantly reduce deforestation in Indonesia and serve as a model for forestry reform.
READ MORE

In a Host of Small Sources,
Scientists See Energy Windfall

by cheryl katz
The emerging field of “energy scavenging” is drawing on a wide array of untapped energy sources­ — including radio waves, vibrations created by moving objects, and waste heat from computers or car exhaust systems — to generate electricity and boost efficiency.
READ MORE

Life on Mekong Faces Threats
As Major Dams Begin to Rise

by joshua zaffos
With a massive dam under construction in Laos and other dams on the way, the Mekong River is facing a wave of hydroelectric projects that could profoundly alter the river’s ecology and disrupt the food supplies of millions of people in Southeast Asia.
READ MORE

As Fracking Booms, Growing
Concerns About Wastewater

by roger real drouin
With hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas continuing to proliferate across the U.S., scientists and environmental activists are raising questions about whether millions of gallons of contaminated drilling fluids could be threatening water supplies and human health.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

e360 video contest
Yale Environment 360 is sponsoring a contest to honor the best environmental videos.
Find more contest information.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

 

OF INTEREST



Yale