North Atlantic Right Whales have once again returned to the waters of Cape Cod, in the Gulf of Maine, as a dramatic increase in whale sightings signals the beginning of their annual migration.  Last week, researchers from the nonprofit Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, spotted nine whales travelling their version of Route 66 which convenes in Cape Cod Bay.  Though nine whales sounds like a relatively small number, this news excites scientists as Right Whales are one of the rarest and most endangered cetacean species – with only 526 left in the world, according to the Center for Coastal Studies.  The name, N. AtlanticNOAA Whale Image Right Whale, dates back to colonial America when harpooners’ referred to this species as the “right” whale to kill because it would bring in the most lucrative profit.  These majestic whales had been steadily hunted and heavily targeted for 200 years, primarily for their fat used to make candles. In general, whale meat was traded and consumed in many Asian countries, most famously Japan.  Their baleen was also sold as a traditional form of medicine, though it does not have any healing properties.

Brief History of Whaling:

Today the International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulates whale hunting, and for the past 65 years hunting of North Atlantic Right Whales is prohibited as these whales have become ever scarcer.  Then in 1986 the IWC announced an international ban on whaling, though a few nations continue to try and circumvent this law.  Though the practice of whaling has largely been condemned by the global community, Japan, Norway, and Iceland continue to whale after the 1986 IWC whaling moratorium, usually under the guise of scientific research.  These whales are categorized as endangered by the ICUN and are now protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Hunting was the primary reason for their severe decrease in numbers, however new threats continue to challenge their ability to rebound in New England.  Whale entanglement in fishing line, either discarded or still in use, causes many whale deaths and injuries that continues to inhibit repopulation of North Atlantic Right Whales.  Additionally, being hit by large boats is frequent and causes injury to the whale.  Mother Nature is also working against the whales, as the gentle giants are slow to reach sexual maturity and then only produce one calf every 2-3 years.  The sight of so many individuals coming back to Cape Cod is a positive sign that there will be more whales to follow and gives hope that this species will be able to make a remarkable comeback.  Many organizations are actively pursuing paths to further ensure the survival of this gravely endangered species, by educating locals and proposing increased protection.

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What Actions are Helping N. Atlantic Right Whales Rebound?

NOAA plans to expand the whale’s critical habitat, an area crucial to their survival, to lessen the threats from entanglement and give then a larger area to aggregate during migrations with minimized disturbances.  The hope is to designate a larger area of Cape Cod Bay as a critical habitat, and impose stricter restrictions on human activities during their migration season. Officials say that the increase in critical habitat is set to take effect by the end of the month. The Center for Coastal Studies was prompted by the arrival of Right Whales to release a statement educating the public on the plight of the whales.  Additionally, the statement warned locals that it was illegal to get closer than 500 yards of a N. Atlantic Right Whale, and reminded the public of the dangers that fishing gear and recreational activities pose to the endangered whales.  Simple activities such as boating and small-scale fishing can have drastic repercussions on local wildlife as 50% of known N. Atlantic Right Whale Entanglements were caused by entanglement or collisions with ships.

The incoming traffic of Right Whales to the Cape Cod area is encouraging to scientists because it solidifies that there is still a viable population and even chance for future population growth.  Scientists plan to continue aerial surveys of Cape Cod Bay in order to track the route of the whales, as well as obtain accurate estimates of how many North Atlantic Right Whales exist.  By surveying the area periodically, scientists can better determine where their critical habitat is located and develop an appropriate management plan to ensure the longevity of these New England gems.  So, to those who live along the beautiful New England coast, keep your eyes peeled for these rare giants and be sure to take precautions to ensure the safe travels of Right Whales into a prosperous future.