Endangered whales seen in large numbers off Maine

Posted Dec. 31, 2008, at 1:47 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:53 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Scientists think they have identified a wintering area and a possible breeding ground in the Gulf of Maine for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center said Wednesday its aerial survey team spotted 44 of the whales on Dec. 3 in the Jordan Basin area, about 70 miles south of Bar Harbor. Eleven days later, the team spotted 41 right whales just west of Jordan Basin.

Seeing 44 right whales together in the Gulf of Maine is a record during the winter, when daily observations of three or five whales are more common, said survey team leader Tim Cole.

Many female right whales head south in winter to their only known birthing ground, off Florida and Georgia. But little is known about where many of the other whales go in winter, largely because of poor surveying conditions due to bad weather.

In recent years, scientists have developed an aerial grid system for the Gulf of Maine and around Cape Cod that has resulted in more frequent inspections of areas that were rarely surveyed in the past, such as Jordan Basin and the Great South Channel off Cape Cod. They now suspect that more right whales spend the winter in the Gulf of Maine than previously thought.

“The whales appear to follow the circulation system of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank and pursue their food,” said Cole, who has been flying surveys for more than 15 years for the science center, based in Falmouth, Mass. “In the winter many of the right whales seem to be in the middle of the Gulf of Maine and off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and by early spring move into Cape Cod Bay, then the Great South Channel and then eastward toward Georges Basin. By midsummer, they head north into the Bay of Fundy.”

With a right whale population estimated at about 325, scientists say it is important to know where the whales are at any given time. They have been listed as endangered since 1970.

The aerial survey team conducts research on marine species off the Northeast from Maine to North Carolina. NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Florida, which also has aerial survey teams, has similar responsi-bilities for Southeast.

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