Researchers worry pandemic creating gaps in North Atlantic right whale tracking

Researchers worry pandemic creating gaps in North Atlantic right whale tracking

Researchers are struggling to keep track of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales this spring because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

Restrictions on conducting fieldwork mean there are fewer boats on the water and planes in the sky tracking newborn whales, said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Massachusetts.

During the spring, mothers and their calves are typically found swimming in the Cape Cod Bay area along the shore of Massachusetts. Teams of researchers take to the skies and the water to track the whales and photograph any identifying markers that can be used to tell one calf from another years down the road. 

But, right now,  there’s only one team flying over Cape Cod Bay collecting photographs of whales. 

And the restrictions limiting fieldwork could lead to gaps in data down the road, Hamilton said.

“If there are not enough people photographing right whales, then we’ll lose a tremendous amount of information about who the calves are, health rates, detecting mortalities, detecting entanglements, being able to respond to entanglements,” Hamilton said.

Philip Hamilton is a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Massachusetts. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Newborn whales are beginning to develop identifying features, making it pertinent for researchers to get high quality photos, Hamilton said. 

The pandemic has forced researchers to rely on photos from the one aerial team watching the waters and on submitted photos from people along the Massachusetts coast.

“It’s a smaller sample size, but at least we’re getting something.”

Researchers have already been able to gather some genetic samples from whales earlier this year. 

Hamilton said a lack of close-up photographs may mean researchers will have to rely on genetic samples instead of photographs to identify whales in the future.

“If we don’t get good photographs of them as they develop these identifying characteristics … then it’s much harder in the future to know who they are.”

The 10th North Atlantic right whale calf of 2020 was born to Palmetto, No. 1970, a 31-year-old right whale. (Twitter/NOAA Fish Southeast)

Right whale researchers perform some of their fieldwork in Canada during the summer, but for now that’s on hold because of travel restrictions and border closures.

It’s also unlikely researchers and scientists would be able to gather on a beach to perform a necropsy if a whale was found dead in the water or along the shore, Hamilton said.

Philip Hamilton with the New England Aquarium explains how the pandemic impacts efforts to research and rescue endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. 6:47

“There will be potentially many fewer eyes on the water both doing vessel surveys as well as aerial surveys,” he said. 

“Even if a carcass is detected, there may not be the capacity to tow it to shore.”

Twelve right whales died last summer. 

Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement are the leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. 

There are only about 400 right whales left, and fewer than 100 breeding females.

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