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


In Clash of Greens, a Case for
Large-Scale U.S. Solar Projects

Weaning the U.S. economy off fossil fuels will involve the wide deployment of utility-scale solar power. But for that to happen, the environmental community must resolve its conflict between clean energy advocates and those who regard solar farms as blights on the landscape.
READ MORE

Global Extinction Rates: Why
Do Estimates Vary So Wildly?

Is it 150 species a day or 24 a day or far less than that? Prominent scientists cite dramatically different numbers when estimating the rate at which species are going extinct. Why is that?
READ MORE

Probing the Rich Inner Lives
Of the Planet’s Wild Animals

Scientist Carl Safina has examined our steadily evolving understanding of the complex interactions among the more social members of the animal world. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why it’s vital to our humanity to empathize more deeply with wild creatures.
READ MORE

With Climate Change, a Terrifying
New Normal for Western Firefighters

In the last two decades, officials in Colorado have watched as massive, months-long wildfires have become a regular occurrence in their state. A Yale Environment 360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters who describe what it’s like to continuously confront deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
READ MORE

As Ocean Waters Heat Up,
A Quest to Create ‘Super Corals’

With the world’s coral reefs increasingly threatened by warmer and more acidic seas, scientists are selectively breeding corals to create species with the best chance to survive in the coming century and beyond. Are genetically modified corals next?
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


As Ocean Waters Heat Up,
A Quest to Create ‘Super Corals’

by nicola jones
With the world’s coral reefs increasingly threatened by warmer and more acidic seas, scientists are selectively breeding corals to create species with the best chance to survive in the coming century and beyond. Are genetically modified corals next?
READ MORE

A Clash of Green and Brown:
Germany Struggles to End Coal

by christian schwagerl
A recent battle over imposing a “climate fee” on coal-fired power plants highlights Germany’s continuing paradox: Even as the nation aspires to be a renewable energy leader, it is exploiting its vast reserves of dirty brown coal.
READ MORE

On an Unspoiled Caribbean Isle,
Grand Plans for Big Tourist Port

by fred pearce
East Caicos is a tropical jewel – the largest uninhabitated island in the Caribbean and home to rare birds and pristine turtle-nesting beaches. But plans for a giant port for cruise and cargo ships could change it forever.
READ MORE

A Little Fish with Big Impact
In Trouble on U.S. West Coast

by elizabeth grossman
Scientists are concerned that officials waited too long to order a ban on U.S. Pacific sardine fishing that goes into effect July 1. The dire state of the sardine population is a cautionary tale about overharvesting these and other forage fish that are a critical part of the marine food web.
READ MORE

Despite Hurdles, Solar Power in
Australia Is Too Robust to Kill

by jo chandler
No nation has as high a penetration of residential solar as Australia, with one in five homes now powered by the sun. And while the government has slashed incentives, solar energy continues to grow, thanks to a steep drop in the cost of PV panels and the country’s abundant sunshine.
READ MORE

Genetically Modified Mosquito
Sparks a Controversy in Florida

by lisa palmer
Officials in the Florida Keys are seeking to use a GM mosquito that could help prevent a recurrence of dengue fever there. But fears among some residents — which scientists say are unfounded — are slowing the release of mosquitoes whose offspring are genetically programmed to die.
READ MORE

Oasis at Risk: Oman’s Ancient
Water Channels Are Drying Up

by fred pearce
Since pre-Islamic times, Oman’s water systems known as aflaj have brought water from the mountains and made the desert bloom. But now, unregulated pumping of groundwater is depleting aquifers and causing the long-reliable channels to run dry.
READ MORE

Surge in Renewables Remakes
California’s Energy Landscape

by cheryl katz
Thanks to favorable geography, innovative government policies, and businesses that see the benefits of clean energy investments, California is closing in on its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020.
READ MORE

As Andes Warm, Deciphering
The Future for Tropical Birds

by daniel grossman
Scientists have theorized that tropical birds in mountainous regions will move uphill as the climate warms. But new research in the Peruvian Andes suggests that the birds will stay put and face a new threat — predator snakes that will climb into their territory to escape the heat.
READ MORE

Can the North Sea Wind Boom
And Seabird Colonies Coexist?

by fred pearce
Offshore wind farms have been proliferating in the North Sea, with more huge projects planned. But conservationists are concerned this clean energy source could threaten seabird colonies that now thrive in the sea’s shallow waters.
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


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

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.


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 PHOTO GALLERY

“Cuba
Photographer Robert Wintner documents the exquisite beauty and biodiversity of Cuba’s unspoiled coral reefs.
View the gallery.

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, chronicles a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant. It was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Watch the video.


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

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale