Could ‘ropeless’ lobster traps help save right whales from extinction?

ropeless nets

By: Chris ContePosted at 9:31 AM, Sep 21, 2021 and last updated 8:39 AM, Sep 21, 2021

The skyline of Boston is still in view when Colin Greeley catches his first glimpse of water rising off the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. A family of whales is about to breach the surface to take a breath before diving back into the sea.

Greeley is leading a whale-watching expedition for City Cruises into Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a feeding ground famous for its sightings of whales and dolphins from up and down the East Coast.

On this day, Greeley was hoping to spot the elusive and endangered North Atlantic right whale.


“We get to see thousands of people every summer, so we have a chance to educate people about why it’s important to protect as many species as possible,” Greeley said.

There are an estimated 366 North Atlantic right whales left on the entire planet. Climate change is making it harder for them to find food. But many experts believe this endangered species’ biggest enemy is fishing gear.

Philip Hamilton is a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium and has spent decades studying the right whale. According to data compiled by the aquarium, nearly 80 percent of right whales deaths are caused by entanglement.

Hamilton often has a hard time looking through some of the pictures he’s taken over the years of right whales who are struggling to survive after becoming caught in fishing lines.

“Sometimes I look at my screen and I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s hard to see,” Hamilton said.

With tens of millions of fishing lines sitting in waterways throughout the Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy for right whales to become caught. Once they do become entangled, this 100-ton mammal uses the entire force of its body to try and break free. That force often causes deep and sometimes fatal gashes in the whale’s body.

“Since 2017, there have been 49 right whales killed or seriously injured,” Hamilton noted.

But deep below the surface of the ocean, there are efforts underway to keep those right whales from becoming entangled.

Rob Morris is with a company called EdgeTech. They have developed a new type of lobster trap that doesn’t rely on a fishing line permanently sitting in the water. Instead, they’ve developed a trap that has a rope kept inside of it.

When a fisherman is ready to retrieve that lobster trap, an iPhone application tells it to deploy a buoy to the surface.

“It’s becoming more popular, people are seeing it can work and it does work,” Morris said.

If these traps could reduce those numbers even by just a fraction, it could mean one less entanglement. For lobster fishermen though, overhauling their fishing gear is not a simple or cheap task.

Michael Lane has been fishing the waters off Cohasset, Massachusetts since he was a kid. Lane is part of a pilot program working to test out the so-called “ropeless” lobster traps. But the traps are likely still years away from receiving federal approval.

“We don’t want to see them go extinct, so it’s either stay home and cry about it or figure out a solution,” Lane said.

This lifelong fisherman though barely makes enough money to pay the bills. Mandating these traps be used all over the country will likely take federal grants. Each apparatus costs around $3,700, compared to the few hundred dollars a typical lobster trap costs.

Money most fishermen just don’t have.

“How do you invest in a business when you don’t know if you can fish from year to year? It’s hard and harder to make those capital investments,” Lane said.

But the investment is better than the alternative. Officials from Massachusetts to Maine often close fishing grounds when right whales are spotted. No fishing means no income for people like Michael Lane.

“What am I going to do if they shut this down? Where am I gonna go? I have a high school diploma for Christ’s sake,” Lane said.

Saving these whales is a complex, difficult task. But once they’re gone, that’s it for the North Atlantic right whale.

U.S. finalizes critical habitat protections for endangered humpback whales

By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson

April 20, 2021 0 Comments

U.S. finalizes critical habitat protections for endangered humpback whales

For decades, even after whaling ceased, humpback whales have faced challenges to their survival, ranging from ship strikes to warming oceans and climate change. Photo by Stan Butler/NOAA44SHARES

The United States has finalized a rule to protect key ocean habitats used by endangered humpback whales as they migrate and feed in the waters off the U.S. west coast.

This is a tremendous development and one we hope will help speed the recovery of these iconic marine mammals who were once hunted to the brink of extinction for their oil and blubber. Two of the five “breeding stocks” of humpback whales in the world listed under the Endangered Species Act feed along the U.S. west coast where they are in danger of being struck by ships and face other potentially adverse impacts from commercial fisheries, including fatal entanglement in fishing gear. The designation of these areas as “critical habitat” for humpback whales will allow the government to limit activities that have the potential to degrade these crucial habitats.

This is a commonsense protection, but it has been a long time coming. For decades, even after whaling ceased, humpback whales have faced challenges to their survival, ranging from ship strikes to warming oceans and climate change. Until the 1980s, indiscriminate whaling led to populations of some humpback whales declining by nearly 95 percent globally, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Beginning in the 1970s, the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations waged a major fight to protect these animals both nationally and internationally. Our efforts led to humpback whales being protected under the Endangered Species Act, when that law passed in 1973. Eventually, we won an international moratorium on killing humpbacks in commercial whale hunts.

But in 2016, during a review of humpback whale populations, the NMFS divided them into 14 distinct “breeding stocks” and decided only five of these would remain protected under the ESA moving forward—a decision we did not feel sufficiently protected these animals.

The ESA requires the government to designate “critical habitat” for the five listed stocks, something the NMFS failed to do so for five years despite protests by the HSUS, Humane Society Legislative Fund and other organizations.

We are pleased that under the Biden administration, the NMFS has at last taken this important step, and we now urge it to do more to protect these animals by regulating potentially harmful activities in these vital areas.

Humpback whales are iconic animals who are an important part of a diverse ocean ecosystem. They are a source of joy for whale watchers worldwide. No one who has seen a humpback feeding at the surface in waters close to the shore, slapping their long flippers on the ocean surface and leaping completely out of the water in spectacular breaches is ever likely to forget the spectacle.

In 1970 Dr. Roger Payne, a renowned whale scientist, published a record album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” introducing the world to the complex and beautiful “songs” of humpbacks in their mating grounds. At around the same time a shocked American public saw images in the media of dead humpback whales being dragged onto whaling ships. Today, decades later, this dichotomy continues: whales continue to be among our oceans’ most beloved creatures, even as they face great challenges to their survival. It’s high time these whales get the protections they deserve. Let’s celebrate the progress made for humpback whales today, even as we continue to fight on their behalf.

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

Ropeless fishing tech could help save rare whale, say scientists

Virtual buoys and time triggered traps reduce risk to endangered North Atlantic right whale, but reactions among fishers in US and Canada are mixed

EdgeTech Ropeless Fishing System
Ropeless tech avoids the need for vertical lines Photograph: EdgeTech

Seascape: the state of our oceans is supported by

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation

About this contentAshifa Kassam@ashifa_kThu 8 Apr 2021 06.43 EDT


Ropes that spring to the water’s surface when summoned and virtual buoys could hold the key to saving one of the world’s most endangered whale species, scientists and conservation groups have said.

As the North Atlantic right whale nears the brink of extinction – amid reports of whales tangled in metres of thick fishing lines and findings suggesting 85% of the population have been entangled at least once – calls have grown for the adoption of ropeless fishing, using gear that does not involve any vertical lines.

“Ropeless was seen as a kind of crazy idea before,” said Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, US. “But now it looks like the only actual solution to the problem.”

In recent years officials in the US and Canada have responded to the dwindling population of whales with a series of closures in key fishing areas, an approach that has at times prompted outcry from fishers, according to marine biologist and WHOI veterinarian Michael Moore.

“Some people say we need to make some hard decisions and let the species go or let the industry go,” said Moore, who heads the Ropeless Consortium, a group that engages researchers, conservationists and industry on ropeless technology. “I don’t believe that’s true.”

Researchers examine a dead North Atlantic right whale in the gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada
Researchers examine a dead North Atlantic right whale in the gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada. Collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear are common causes of death. Photograph: HO/AP

With half a dozen or so companies working to develop ropeless gear, the technology varies widely. At its essence the gear allows traps to be dropped along the seabed without the traditional vertical line, swapping surface buoys for GPS or other tracking technology that indicates the location of traps. When it is time to retrieve the traps, an acoustic signal or timer triggers the trap to rise to the surface.Advertisement

The technology doesn’t completely do away with fishing lines in the water. In commercial lobster fishing, for example, ropes would still be used to connect traps to each other as they sit on the seabed.

“But if there is no rope in the water column, the entanglement risk goes down very substantially,” said Moore, who cited calculations that suggest the risk could drop by as much as 90%.

The technology is not without its challenges, chief among them the high cost of swapping out the million or so vertical lines currently strewn across the whales’ migratory pathways, said Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“We’re not going to be able to put this financial burden on the backs of individual fishermen,” says Ramage. He hoped that governments in the US and Canada as well as philanthropic sources would step in to help cover the cost of the transition.

As companies grapple with the lingering technical challenges, such as how to ensure that the gear placed in the water by fishers is universally visible to others, the technology has also come up against regulatory barriers, said Ramage.

In the US, state and federal regulators have all but barred ropeless fishing, allowing it only for those who successfully wade through a “somewhat daunting” process of applying for an exemption, said Ramage. In Massachusetts, for example, state regulations continue to require at least one vertical buoy rope while fishing.

Lobster buoys and fishing net hanging on the wall of a weathered fishing shack in Massachusetts
State regulations in Massachusetts require at least one vertical buoy rope. Photograph: LI Cook/Alamy

Among fishers the reaction to ropeless has been divided. In a December letter to state officials, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association dismissed the idea. “This transition would take hundreds of millions of dollars and decades to implement and outfit every commercial fishing vessel that is on the water,” wrote Beth Casoni, the association’s executive director. Casoni did not reply to a request for an interview.Advertisement

In Canadian waters, the Acadian Crabbers Association has been testing ropeless since 2018. “When we started, we were very leery as to the possibility of this being workable in a real fishery situation,” said Robert Haché, director general of the association.

But they felt they had few other options, he said. Measures enacted by the Canadian government to protect the whales saw the closure of about 75% of their fishing grounds in the southern gulf of Saint Lawrence last year. “It’s either [ropeless] or our fishery is doomed because we cannot keep on being thrown out of our fishing grounds systematically every year,” said Haché.

A limited trial – carried out by 10 fishers over two weeks last year – yielded promising results. “We’re quite enthusiastic about this because we think that this can work and this is going to work,” said Haché. Plans are in the works for an expanded trial in May, involving as many as 21 fishers who hope to use the technology to fish in closed areas for up to eight weeks.

“For us, it’s the ideal solution to fish in areas that are closed to fishing because of the presence of whales,” he said. He was hesitant, however, to endorse the use of ropeless in open waters. “We’re quite far away from looking at this as being a solution for widespread deployment of fishers and deployment of traps,” said Haché.

EdgeTech ropeless fishing
Technology for ropeless fishing varies, but at its essence swaps surface buoys for GPS or other digital tracking. Photograph: EdgeTech


This potential compromise – allowing ropeless fishing in closed-off areas – is now being considered by the US federal government, said Moore of the Ropeless Consortium. “In some ways it’s giving back to the industry what has already been taking away from them, rather than taking more away from them … It’s a question of the carrot and the stick really.”

The small incentive could help usher in a healthier coexistence between the whales and the fishing industry, said Moore. With the global population of North Atlantic right whales estimated to have dwindled to 356 in 2019, however, time is of the essence.

“The trauma these animals are going through is utterly unacceptable,” said Moore, pointing to examples of injuries ranging from fishing rope embedded inches-deep in a whale’s lip to a spinal disfigurement caused by the strain of dragging fishing gear.

He described entanglement as a “human-caused traumatic disease” that has pushed the species to the brink. “For the past 20 years I’ve been having nightmares about what these animals are going through.”

Endangered North Atlantic right whales produce most calves since 2015

  • Scientists caution high death rate is outpacing births
  • Population of whales estimated at around 360
A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Georgia in March.
A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Georgia in March. Photograph: AP

Associated Press in BostonSat 3 Apr 2021 12.47 EDT


North Atlantic right whales gave birth over the winter in greater numbers than scientists have seen since 2015, an encouraging sign for researchers who became alarmed three years ago when the critically endangered species produced no known offspring at all.

Survey teams spotted 17 newborn calves swimming with their mothers between Florida and North Carolina from December through March. One calf died after being hit a boat, a reminder of a death rate experts fear is outpacing births.

The calf-count equals the combined total for the previous three years. In a dismal 2018, scientists saw no births for the first time in three decades. Still, researchers say greater numbers are needed. The population of the endangered marine giants is estimated to have fallen to about 360.Advertisement

“What we are seeing is what we hope will be the beginning of an upward climb in calving that’s going to continue for the next few years,” said Clay George, who oversees right whale surveys for the Georgia state government. “They need to be producing about two dozen calves per year for the population to stabilize and continue to grow.”

Right whales migrate each winter to waters off the south-eastern US. Spotters fly over the coastline during calving season, scanning the water for mothers with newborns.

Flights over Georgia and Florida ended on Wednesday, the last day of March, typically the season’s end. Spotters will monitor waters off the Carolinas through 15 April, hoping to pick up overlooked newborns as the whales head north.

This season’s calf count matches 17 births recorded in 2015. The record is 39, confirmed in 2009. Scientists suspect a calving slump may have been caused by a shortage of zooplankton in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. They say the increase in births could be a result of whales being healthier after shifting to waters with more abundant food sources.

“It’s a somewhat hopeful sign that they are starting to adjust to this new regime where females are in good enough condition to give birth,” said Philip Hamilton, a researcher at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Regardless, conservationists worry that right whales are dying, largely from manmade causes, at a faster rate than they can reproduce. Since 2017, scientists have confirmed 34 right whale deaths in US and Canadian waters, with the leading causes being entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats and ships.

Considering whales were documented in the same period with serious injuries, researchers fear the real death toll could be at least 49. Thirty nine births have been recorded since 2017.

“If we reduced or eliminated the human-caused death rate, their birth rate would be fine,” Hamilton said. “The onus should not be on them to reproduce at a rate that can sustain the rate at which we kill them. The onus should be in us to stop killing.”

World's most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – video
World’s most endangered right whale spotted off Spanish island – video


The US federal government is expected to finalize new rules aimed at decreasing the number of right whales tangled up in fishing gear used to catch lobster and crabs. Proposals to reduce vertical fishing lines and modify seasonal restricted areas have met with heated debate. Fishermen say the rules could put them out of businesses. Conservation groups insist they aren’t strict enough.

The National Marine Fisheries Service received more than 170,000 public comments on the proposed rules after a report was issued on 31 December, said agency spokeswoman Allison Garrett. She said final rules should be published this summer.

Garrett said the fisheries service is also considering adjustments to federal rules that since 2008 have imposed speed limits on larger vessels in certain Atlantic waters during periods when right whales are frequently seen. A report in January found mariners’ compliance with the speed rules had improved but still lagged below 25% for large commercial vessels at four ports in the south-east.

“We’ve long known from the survival estimates that more right whales are dying than those we see,” said George, the whale survey coordinator for Georgia. “They need to be producing a lot more calves. But the big issue is we’ve got to significantly reduce the number than are being entangled in fishing ropes and struck by boats.”

How Ancient ‘Deer’ Lost Their Legs and Became Whales

Over millions of years, they traded in their legs for flippers, gained blow holes and evolved into the largest creatures on Earth.

By Joshua Rapp LearnMarch 19, 2021 6:00 AM

Humpback whale

(Credit: Imagine Earth Photography/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science newsSign up for the NewsletterSIGN UP

The largest animals that have ever existed on our planet descended from a miniature deer-like creature that walked on four legs in the swamps of ancient India.

Cetaceans include everything from dolphins to whales. They are fairly unique among mammals in that they live permanently in the sea — something they share with only a few other types of live-bearing, warm-blooded species.

But their evolutionary ancestors weren’t always the seafaring types. In fact, just 50 million years ago, ancestors of all cetaceans were small creatures called Indohyus that waded through swamps on four legs.about:blankabout:blank

Indohyus basically looked like a tiny little deer, a deer the size of a cat,” says Hans Thewissen, a professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University who has studied whale evolution for years and wrote the book The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years.

How did these creatures go from that to blue whales the length of about two city buses? It took a lot of small changes over tens of millions of years.

The Land of Indohyus

Indohyus belonged to the even-toed group of ungulates, which today includes giraffes, horses, pigs and cetaceans. Research shows that back in the Eocene epoch roughly 50 million years ago, Indohyus lived in modern-day India and Pakistan. Today, a distant deer-like relative called the water chevrotain (or African mouse-deer) can be found from central to southern Africa. These deer eat flowers and fruitsand live near rivers, which they use as escape routes to flee land-based predators or even eagles.

Thewissen’s research examining stable isotopes in Indohyus fossils shows they ate land plants, but their dense bones suggest they spent a lot of time in the water. The hippopotamus — the closest living relative of whales that live outside the ocean — also has dense bones, which help weigh it down while walking along the bottom of lakes or rivers.

A Taste for Meat

The evolutionary descendant of Indohyus, called Pakicetus, began to adopt a more aquatic lifestyle as they abandoned a vegetarian diet, based on the way their teeth look, Thewissen says. These creatures looked a little like wolves with elongated bodies, and also lived in the India-Pakistan region. Remaining fossils of these extinct animals have only been found in rocks, which tells us that they likely spent a lot of time in shallow pools of water.about:blankabout:blank

“We think they sat in the water and waited for prey to drink, similar to crocodiles,” Thewissen says.

These animals were succeeded byambulocetids, at which point the creatures’ snouts becomes more elongated like crocodiles. All four limbs also shortened in these creatures. “They were much better swimmers,” Thewissen says. “[Their fossils] are found in rocks indicative of coastal environment.”

By the time remingtonocetids appeared between 49 million and 42 million years ago, the animal family began to diversify. Thewissen describes some of these animals with bodies like giant otters while others had long, thin snouts a little like gharials today, which they likely used to snap fish out of the water.

“This is a phase of experimentation where different species are trying different ways of living and modifying their bodies to match,” Thewissen says.

Some of their fossil fragments are found outside of the India-Pakistan region, which shows remingtonocetids may have been able to swim long distances, Thewissen adds.

The Life Aquatic

The first ancestors of whales that began to take to the ocean more widely were the protocetids from 48 million to 42 million years ago, based partly on the fact that these fossils are found across the world from Pakistan to the eastern U.S. and Peru. Thewissen describes them as looking a little more like sea lions, with limbs big enough to support them on land, though he notes that researchers still don’t know the full range of body shapes that occurred with these prehistoric animals.

In any case, the general shapes change a lot in the next stage, that of the basilosaurids, so called in part because the first paleontologists to find some of the creatures believed they were some sort of sea snake. In reality, Thewissen says these are the first creatures “we would actually recognize as whales.”

There were two major shapes of basilosaurids. The giant sea snake-looking ones, such as the Basilosaurus isis, were about as long as a bus and still had tiny hind legs and front forearms that gave way to flippers. The other group, the dorudontines, appeared a little like dolphins, with flippers and no neck but tiny hind legs. They also had a fluke appearing at the end of their tails, characteristic of today’s cetaceans. It’s possible that the flukes started earlier, with some protocetids.

“They shortened their thumb and elongated their other fingers through time,” says Rachel Racicot, a researcher who studies cetacean evolution at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.

Though blow hole development likely started with the protocetids, it really became apparent in the basilosaurids. They began to form streamlined heads with noses more useful for coming up for air. “They start to have their nose closer to the back of their heads to make it easier to breathe,” Racicot says.

These creatures went extinct between 42 million and 34 million years ago — roughly the time the ancestors of modern cetaceans began to appear. The descendants of basilosaurids lost their hind legs completely and split into the two groups of whales we know today: baleen whales and toothed whales.

Baleen whales emerged as the earliest whale group about 41 million years ago. These first whales included the ancestors of species like bowheads, humpbacks, right whales and blue whales. Toothed whales started to appear about 34 million years ago with the ancestors of orcas, dolphins, porpoises, sperm whales, belugas and beaked whales, though the oldest whale species still around today have only been around for roughly 10 million years, and most species are only a few million years old.

The major difference between baleen and toothed whales is their feeding strategy. The toothed whales hunt down prey and eat it, often using echolocation. Baleen whales are still carnivorous, but they specialize in grazing on tiny creatures like krill in vast numbers, filtering them through their grill-like baleen as they swim.

As these two groups began to emerge from their basilosaurid ancestors, they also started to develop another key component that sets cetaceans apart from many mammals — their smarts. “We see a real jump in brain size happening in the Eocene,” Thewissen says.

While modern research on whale intelligence is expanding, it has also revealed that many mysteries remain concerning these giants of the deep.

Emaciated whale dies after washing up on California shoreline

Jami Ganz  1 day ago

A whale that washed up on a California beach Wednesday has died.

Emaciated whale dies after washing up on California shoreline (

a body of water next to the ocean: A 25-foot gray whale died after washing up near the shore of Dockweiler State Beach south of Marina Del Rey Wednesday afternoon.© Provided by New York Daily News A 25-foot gray whale died after washing up near the shore of Dockweiler State Beach south of Marina Del Rey Wednesday afternoon.

Lifeguards found the 25-foot emaciated gray whale at Dockweiler Beach, south of Marina del Rey, around 4 p.m. local time, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Lifeguard Division said Thursday on its Facebook page.

They and personnel from Marine Animal Rescue were advised to not help the animal, who they didn’t want to risk injuring critically, according to tweet from the fire department lifeguards’ official account.

Originally, the Lifeguards, animal rescue and NOAA Fisheries — who directed them to leave the whale be — hoped the creature would manage to get back to the water during high tide, according to the Facebook post.

The whale though was declared dead around 8 p.m.

“With great sadness the stranded whale has been determined to be deceased,” the fire department lifeguards tweeted.

The whale’s removal, it said, would be coordinated by the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, with a necropsy planned for Thursday.

Endangered right whale found dead off S. Carolina beach

53 mins ago

Endangered right whale found dead off S. Carolina beach (

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — A critically endangered North Atlantic Right whale was found dead over the weekend off the coast of South Carolina, more than four months after it had been spotted entangled in fishing gear.

The National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed Sunday that the dead whale was discovered in waters about 15 miles (24 kilometers) offshore from Myrtle Beach. It’s the third right whale death recorded since the rare species’ calving season began in November along the southern East Coast.

Experts estimate fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales survive. Pregnant females migrate each winter to the warmer coastal waters off Georgia and Florida to give birth to their calves.

The whale found dead off South Carolina was an 11-year-old male that had been entangled at least since October, when it was sighted off Nantucket, Massachusetts, swimming with a fishing line caught in its mouth and extending past its tail, the fisheries service said in a news release.

The same entangled whale was seen again in mid-February off Florida, where a team of experts was dispatched but was unable to free the whale.

Conservationists worry that North Atlantic right whales are slipping closer to extinction as deaths in recent years have outpaced births.

However, the 2021 calving season has proven to be the best in years. Survey teams dispatched to search by air for right whale mothers and newborn calves have so far spotted 15 calves — the most reported since 2015.

The calving season typically goes until mid-April.

Whale that stranded off Florida is completely new species (and already endangered)

By Chris Ciaccia – Live Science Contributor a day ago

This 38-foot-long (11.5 meters) baleen whale stranded off Florida in 2019. The adult male is now considered part of a completely new, and endangered, species called Rice's whale.This 38-foot-long (11.5 meters) baleen whale stranded off Florida in 2019. The adult male is now considered part of a completely new, and endangered, species called Rice’s whale.(Image: © Florida Everglades National Park)

A 38-foot-long (11.5 meters) whale that washed ashore in the Florida Everglades in January 2019 turns out to be a completely new species. And it’s already considered endangered, scientists say.

When the corpse of the behemoth washed up along Sandy Key — underweight with a hard piece of plastic in its gut — scientists thought it was a subspecies of the Bryde’s (pronounced “broodus”) whale, a baleen whale species in the same group that includes humpback and blue whales. That subspecies was named Rice’s whale. Now, after genetic analysis of other Rice’s whales along with an examination of the skull from the Everglades whale, researchers think that, rather than a subspecies, the Rice’s whale is an entirely new species that lives in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The discovery, detailed Jan. 10 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, also means that there are fewer than 100 members of this species living on the planet, making them “critically endangered,” according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Related: Amazing new video shows baby humpback whales nursing from their moms

According to the study, the researchers looked at records of the Bryde’s whale in the Caribbean and greater Atlantic Ocean and concluded the whales they spotted were evidence “of an undescribed species of Balaenoptera from the Gulf of Mexico.” CLOSE 0% PLAY SOUND

The lead study author Patricia Rosel and her co-author, Lynsey Wilcox, both at Southeast Fisheries Science Center, completed the first genetic tests of this whale in 2008, finding that the skull of the Rice’s whale was different than that of Bryde’s whales.

In addition to having different skulls, Rice’s whales are slightly different in size than Bryde’s whales, the new analysis showed. They can weigh up to 60,000 pounds (27,215 kilograms) and grow up to 42 feet (12.8 meters) long, according to NOAA, whereas Bryde’s whales have been known to reach upwards of 50 feet (15.2 m) and weigh more than 55,000 pounds (24,947 kg).

A Message from Electric-Saver

New Way To Cut Electric BillLEARN MORE


50 of the most endangered species on the planet

Whale album: Giants of the deep

Big miracle: The real rescue in images

Rosel and her colleagues think the whales in the new species can live approximately 60 years, but given that there are so few in existence, researchers need further observation of the whales to get a better idea of their life expectancy.

Given their location in the Gulf of Mexico, Rice’s whales are particularly vulnerable to oil spills, vessel strikes and energy exploration and production, NOAA added.

Originally published on Live Science.

Gray whales are starving and dying off at an alarming rate

CBS News

Jeff BerardelliMon, January 25, 2021, 2:06 PM

As long as yellow school bus and weighing as much as 20 cars, the eastern North Pacific gray whale is a gentle giant often seen breaching just off the California coast. As of 2016 the population consisted of 27,000 individuals, but around two years ago unusual numbers of whales started dying off, alarming scientists.

Since 2019, gray whales have been decimated by something called an unusual mortality event, or UME. A UME is an unexpected phenomenon during which a significant number of marine mammals die. So far, this UME has resulted in 378 confirmed gray whale deaths, and possibly many more that are unrecorded. This event continues.

A dead adult female gray whale stranded in Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico on March 17, 2019. The whale was 12.8m in length. / Credit: Fabian Rodríguez-González
A dead adult female gray whale stranded in Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico on March 17, 2019. The whale was 12.8m in length. / Credit: Fabian Rodríguez-González

Scientists are not exactly sure why the whales are dying, but in a newly released study, published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, researchers conclude it is likely a result of starvation due lack of prey, perhaps caused by warming Arctic waters where they feed. If that’s true, the concern is that mass die-offs like this may become more frequent in the future as waters continue to heat up due to human-caused climate change.- ADVERTISEMENT -

The eastern North Pacific gray whale travels over 4,000 miles a year each way up and down the west coast of North America between feeding grounds in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia in summer and breeding grounds along the Baja California Sur in winter.

Right now the whales are heading south towards their breeding lagoons like Laguna San Ignacio in Baja. It is still early, but the co-author of the study, Dr. Steven Swartz, co-director of the Laguna San Ignacio Science Program (LSIESP), told CBS News that the preliminary signs are “distressing.” The COVID-19 pandemic has hampered monitoring, but from the limited observations so far, there are very few calves and some whales are emaciated.

Swartz says the majority of whales will arrive later in February and March in places like Laguna San Ignacio and La Paz, Mexico, where on-site researchers are waiting to evaluate the whales. That’s when they will know if this mortality event continues to get worse.

UME’s may be rare and unexpected, but they are not unheard of. In 1999-2000 a UME resulted in 651 gray whales recorded dead along the west coast of North America. But the total loss was even greater. From 1998 to 2002, the gray whale population declined 25%, from about 21,000 to about 16,000 — a loss of some 5,000 whales.

Understandably, researchers are concerned that the number of deaths in this current event is undercounted as well, especially given the limited ability to monitor the migration due to COVID.

When the team is able to do their work they use a high-tech method to monitor the whales. CBS News corresponded with the lead author, Dr. Fredrik Christiansen, of Aarhus University in Denmark, and he explained their process.

Christiansen says the researchers use what is called drone photogrammetry to measure the body condition of the whales by flying a drone equipped with a high resolution camera about 20 to 30 meters above the whale when they surface to breathe. When the whales are stretched out, measures can be taken of their length and width. From that, researchers are able to calculate the volume or fatness of the whale.

In addition, the team is able to identify individual whales based on unique color patterns on their backs. They can then compare the body condition of each whale from year to year to know if the whales have gained or lost body mass.

Their results show that many of these whales are getting skinnier. The image below shows a comparison of whales photographed in 2017, 2018 and 2019, showing their diminished body condition. It’s clear the whale in the most recent photo especially is not getting the nutrition it needs.

Three adult gray whales photographed between 2017-2019 in Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico, showing the poorer body condition of whales in 2018 and 2019. / Credit: Photos: Fredrik Christiansen (left), Fabian Rodríguez-González (center) and Hunter Warick (right).
Three adult gray whales photographed between 2017-2019 in Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico, showing the poorer body condition of whales in 2018 and 2019. / Credit: Photos: Fredrik Christiansen (left), Fabian Rodríguez-González (center) and Hunter Warick (right).

Christiansen says it appears access to food in the Bering Sea is to blame. “The fact that gray whales already arrived in poorer condition (meaning that they were most likely thinner already when leaving their feeding grounds) in Mexico in 2018 and 2019, indicate that there is less prey on the feeding grounds, or less access to prey.”

Swartz says there is some chance that the population of whales has reached a point where competition for food is impacting the whales, but the most obvious explanation is related to rapid changes in the North Pacific. “The rapid change in the Arctic is disrupting normal cycles,” said Swartz.

In recent years the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the global average, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification, and sea ice has reached near record lows during late summer and fall. This impacts weather patterns, upwelling and something called primary production in the North Pacific Ocean.

Primary productivity is a scientific term which is a measure of biological life in the ocean. Seasonally, as the weather warms and nutrients are transported to the surface from down below due to upwelling, parts of the ocean come alive with blooms of plankton. Like clockwork, these plankton blooms draw predators from near and far. But if these blooms decrease, it threatens the life that depends on them.

According to NOAA’s 2020 Arctic Report Card, primary productivity in the Bering Sea did show lower-than-average values in 2020. Most of the investigated regions showed an uptick. Over the longer term, while most Arctic regions, like Greenland, have seen an increase in primary productivity, the Bering Sea has basically flatlined.

While climate change is clearly disrupting what used to be considered normal, the researchers did not look into that aspect of the UME and it is not clear if the changes to prey or access to prey is related to climate change or some other factor. However, researchers like Swartz and Christiansen are concerned that as the climate continues to warm, the challenges will continue to mount for gray whales and other marine mammals.

“Given the rapid warming of the Arctic, I am indeed concerned that the prey availability for gray whales will be negatively affected, which no doubt would have strong effects on the population size of the gray whale,” said Christiansen. “Since gray whales feed on a variety of prey in different feeding grounds, I think that some parts of the population will be more resilient to such changes in the Arctic, as long as their localized prey does not change. For the population as a whole though, I do fear that the population will decline to the new environmental carrying capacity.”

Blue whales have ‘rediscovered’ South Georgia

By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science CorrespondentPublished4 hours ago

An Antarctic blue whale surfaces off South Georgia
image captionAn Antarctic blue whale surfaces off South Georgia

The resurgence of blue whales around the island of South Georgia is real and has probably been under way for a little while now, say scientists.

When a survey was conducted at the British Overseas Territory earlier this year, 58 of the animals were seen.

That was described as “astonishing” at the time because there had been so few sightings previously.

But a reassessment of 30 years of observational data suggests this bumper crowd of blues was no anomaly.

King penguins (c) George Lemann
image captionSouth Georgia is home to millions of king penguins

It most likely signals they really are making a comeback in the waters around the sub-Antarctic island.

South Georgia is infamous, of course, for being the epicentre of commercial whaling in the early 20th Century. captionJennifer Jackson: “I don’t think this is a surprise phenomenon”

Its steam boats, with their grenade-tipped harpoons, decimated all the large whale populations – and at the peak of the carnage were removing 3,000 blues a year.

And while fur and elephant seals, which were also heavily exploited, managed to bounce back to historic levels relatively quickly – the whales, and the blues in particular, did not.

Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia (c) GSGSSI
image captionGrytviken: Remnants of the old whaling stations can still be seen today

Their absence long after commercial whaling ended even led some whale experts to wonder if these majestic creatures would ever be seen again in significant numbers at South Georgia.

“It was held up as an example of how you can exploit a population beyond the point where it can recover,” Susannah Calderan, who led the reassessment, told BBC News.

Susannah Calderan
image captionSusannah Calderan uses ex-military sonobuoys to pick up the sounds of whales

It’s possible that as the population crashed, the blues simply lost the cultural memory that had drawn them to South Georgia in the first place, the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) fellow said.

The British Overseas Territory is in the path of a food train coming up from the Antarctic on strong currents. This train carries abundant krill, the small crustaceans that whales love.

But because there were so few blues left after commercial whaling, it may be that the knowledge of the island’s productive feeding ground could not be passed on to future generations – so the theory goes.

“So, perhaps now they have re-discovered ‘the larder’,” Susannah Calderan speculated. “South Georgia remains an extremely productive feeding ground. Nothing ever happened to its productivity. It’s not as if the whales stopped coming because there was nothing left to eat.” captionMale blues communicate over vast distances with their repetitive, low-frequency calls (B.Miller/AAD)

The SAMS scientist, with colleagues, has reviewed all the observational data on blue whales at South Georgia going back three decades.

This includes the systematic surveys that have been conducted by researchers and the opportunistic reporting that’s come in from mariners and from cruise ships, whose visits to South Georgia have increased in frequency.

The study also includes data from acoustics – the use of listening devices, such as sonobuoys, which are put in the water to detect the booming, low-frequency calls that are made by blue whales. captionSo-called D-calls made by blue whales are probably associated with social behaviour and feeding (B.Miller/AAD)

All this information points to a gradual increase in the presence of blue whale numbers around the island in recent years.

Even before the remarkable observation of 58 blues in February, it’s now recognised that a total of 41 animals from the species were photo-identified off South Georgia between 2011 and 2020.

South Georgia's Rosita Harbour (c) Oliver Prince
image captionConservationists say South Georgia is an all-too-rare example of an ecosystem in recovery

“It should be said, the survey we carried out at the beginning of this year was not dedicated to blues. This was an accidental finding. We were actually looking for right whales, but the team saw blue whales when they were doing their transects,” explained co-researcher Jennifer Jackson from the British Antarctic Survey, which led the February expedition.

“I don’t think this is a surprise phenomenon. I think we’re going to continue seeing blue whales in the years to come. What we need to understand now is why they are using South Georgia waters again.”

Humpback whale (c) BAS
image captionA humpback whale in the waters around South Georgia

And it’s not just blues. Those other species that were also driven to the brink, like the humpbacks, are also on the rise.

Susannah Calderan would like to see a network of acoustic moorings placed around the island, in particular off its southwest coastline where little systematic survey work has been conducted.

This would help fill gaps in the data and smooth biases which mean the same locations tend to dominate sightings – such as the popular routes taken by cruise ships.

Blue whale
image captionAt the peak of harvesting, 3,000 blue whales were being taken each year

The whale scientists are also now watching closely what will happen with the world’s biggest iceberg – the 4,200 sq km tabular block known as A68a.

Drifting in the same currents that deliver krill to South Georgia, it risks being caught in the shallows surrounding the island. If that happens, the iceberg could disrupt the foraging behaviour of many animals that depend on the krill.

“South Georgia is a kind of home to dead icebergs. Generally, they tend to go there to die. But, yes, this one’s massive,” said Susannah Calderan.

“Will it affect productivity? Will it affect the krill? Will that affect the whales? It’s a really interesting question.”

The team’s analysis, which is published in the journal Endangered Species Research, was funded by South Georgia Heritage Trust and Friends of South Georgia Island.

Iceberg A68a
image captionThe giant iceberg A68a could become stuck in shallow water near the island