ELLSWORTH — There is no serious scientific dispute that the waters of the Gulf of Maine are warming rapidly and scientists from at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium have found more evidence of the impact rising water temperatures are having on the ocean’s largest wildlife.
According to a recent news release, after 40 years of observing North Atlantic right whales during the summer months in the Bay of Fundy on the Maine-Canadian border, scientists from the Anderson Cabot Center failed to see any of the critically endangered whales. Their absence, scientists from the center said, was “a clear indication that the whales’ feeding habitats are continuing to shift as the Gulf of Maine warms.”
The situation is different farther to the south where, in late September, another team of scientists from the aquarium completed an aerial survey of the waters around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and spotted six right whales in the Dynamic Management Area (DMA) off southern New England. The DMA is a voluntary slow-down zone for vessel traffic in areas where right whales have been seen. That designation is issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service in order to protect the endangered species. DMA designations expire after 15 days if no more right whales are spotted in the area.
The southern New England designation was set to expire in early October. As a result of the aquarium’s survey, funded by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, vessels in the area have been asked to reduce their speeds to less than 10 knots until at least Oct. 20 to protect the whales.
During the past several years, the aquarium’s aerial survey has begun to document an increased use of southern New England waters by right whales during the summer and fall, according to Orla O’Brien, an aquarium assistant scientist. “This season, we sighted our first right whale in late July, and along with our partners at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have continued to monitor a small but consistent group of animals over the Nantucket Shoals since then,” O’Brien said.
About five years ago, O’Brien said, right whales were seen in that southern New England area only in the winter and spring. Since 2017, though, whales have become more frequent visitors in the summer and fall.
In the past, right whales would migrate into the Bay of Fundy near Lubec in July through September. In the last decade, though, sightings in the bay have decreased and become more sporadic, according to the aquarium.
This past August and September, aquarium researchers spent six weeks surveying the Bay of Fundy for right whales, sailing from Lubec on the aquarium’s research vessel Nereid when there was good weather. For the first time in 40 years, the research team did not see any right whales.
Prior to 2010, more than 100 right whales would usually be seen in the bay. Now, about one-third of the 411 known living North Atlantic right whales are going to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the summer, according to Philip Hamilton, the aquarium’s research scientist who manages the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Scientists are unsure where the other two-thirds of the population feeds during this time.
It is not uncommon for whale numbers to rise and fall year to year so that they see fewer whales one season, only to see more the following year. And though no right whales were spotted in late summer, a juvenile yearling whale was spotted in July off Eastport and an adult male was seen in August near Brier Island, Nova Scotia.
“These two right whales — sighted by others — show that at least a few whales visited the bay this summer, but likely only to determine if there was adequate food and then move on to look elsewhere,” Hamilton said.
Research has shown that the Gulf of Maine is one of the most rapidly warming bodies of water in the world as a consequence of climate change. Warming ocean temperatures are changing the distribution of tiny copepods, the whales’ primary food source, which, in turn, contributes to the changing distribution of the right whale population.
Shifting patterns, scientists from the New England Aquarium say, “make it increasingly hard to predict where protections will best help right whales.” As a result, the scientists say, expanding the location and duration of protection measures “will be essential for improving the situation for this critically endangered species.”