A new North Atlantic right whale sanctuary might be 7,000 square miles, including Cape Cod Bay, around the outer Cape across Nantucket Shoals to Block Island. (Rob Moir)

RI - What If There Was a Right Whale Marine Sanctuary in R.I./Mass Waters?

The North Atlantic right whale is a critically endangered whale. In the 1970s, with the first whale watches, there were estimated to be 350 right whales, and the population was growing. Then, in 2017, right whales took a turn for the worse. By 2020, the population had fallen to 338 right whales, with only 50-70 breeding females. We must now do more to protect and restore these whales.

Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary

In 1992, when there were about 370 right whales, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary was established under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The first order of business was to establish its advisory council with selected individuals to represent conservation, education, research, recreational and commercial fishing, diving, whale watching, business, maritime heritage, and a youth seat. The council also included representatives from the sanctuary’s government partners, including the Coast Guard, the New England Fishery Management Council, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, and Massachusetts state agencies.

To protect whales in the Sanctuary, an agreement was made with the Coast Guard to increase air and sea patrols. Cooperative work with the National Marine Fisheries Service, conservation organizations, and the whale watching industry led to the development of a set of whale watching guidelines for the Northeast.

Whale disentanglement network

The Sanctuary established an emergency whale disentanglement network with the Center for Coastal Studies and other partners. To avoid entanglements, a Sanctuary researcher developed breakaway lobster trap lines that sank between pots.

Working with the Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization, a mandatory ship reporting system (MSRS) was implemented in July 1999. All ships traveling through North Atlantic right whale habitat, including the Sanctuary, were required to report their location, course, speed, and destination. In return, they received automated messages containing more specific information about whale sightings in the area and precautionary tactics, such as changing course and speed, to avoid contact or collision with whales.

Ship collision avoidance system

At the Sanctuary’s urging, the Coast Guard developed a ship collision avoidance system called the Automatic Identification System (AIS). All ships over 300 gross tons were required to carry an AIS transponder and broadcast the ship’s position, course, and heading, as well as the ship’s particulars and cargo. This data was used to better understand ship traffic patterns and speeds concerning the distribution and abundance of whales to reduce collisions.

Sanctuary scientists worked with whale research organizations to compile 25 years of whale watching data. Stellwagen Bank is a rectangular threshold, running north to south, between Massachusetts Bay and the Gulf of Maine. Surprisingly, whale sightings were not uniform across the bank but instead were shaped more like a figure eight. Northwest ship traffic to Boston bisected the lower portion of the high-density whale area. Here was the greatest risk for deadly ship strikes of whales.

Changes to the shipping lane, whale alert app

By working closely with the shipping industry and other partners in NOAA, the Sanctuary proposed moving the shipping channel 12 degrees east to cross the bank in a shorter distance where whales were less abundant, thus protecting whales from getting struck by ships. Approved in 2007, adjusting the shipping lane resulted in a 58% reduction in the risk of ship strikes for right whales and an 81% reduction for all baleen whales.

In 2008, in response to the proposed installation in Boston of two of the nation’s first offshore deepwater liquid natural gas (LNG) ports, the two LNG companies were required to install the world’s first automatic whale detection system. Ten “listening buoys” were located along the shipping channel into Boston. Sounds picked up by the buoys were recorded and sent to Cornell’s Ornithology Laboratory to identify and confirm the presence of whales. A message was sent back to activate a 10-knot slow speed zone around the buoy, and a notice was sent to LNG ships to slow down.

Seasonal slow speed zones in the presence of North Atlantic right whales were set up by NOAA offshore of major East Coast ports from the whale breeding ground off Jacksonville, Fla., north to Boston. Sanctuary researchers used the AIS to analyze the tracks and speeds of all vessels and sent annual report cards to the companies.

In 2012, the Whale Alert app provided a clearinghouse of information for mariners on the location of whales. The listening buoys documented the return of some right whales to Massachusetts as early as January of that year.

Increasing right whale population

By 2013, the North Atlantic right whale population had risen to 476. With an increasing population, some right whales left the Gulf of Maine for the larger Gulf of St. Lawrence. Right whale numbers went down when researchers reported fewer whales in their usual seasonal haunts until 2015 and 2016, when 40 to 45 right whales were found north of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Researchers have identified individual right whales based on patterns of bristled facial hair and callused skin called callosities. Examining photographs of the two sets of whales observed in Canadian waters during the two summers, researchers identified 74 individual whales. It is unknown whether different right whales came during different summers or if the survey area was too small to include all of the whales in one summer. What is known is that it’s very difficult to count whales in the rollicking sea.

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