Study: Right whales may winter off Maine

Posted Dec. 31, 2008, at 9:16 p.m.

As federal regulators and environmental groups take steps to protect the diminishing number of North Atlantic right whales, recent surveys indicate that many of them might spend the winters grouped off the coast in the Gulf of Maine.

An aerial survey conducted Dec. 3 by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found 44 of the endangered whales gathered in the Jordan Basin about 70 miles south of Bar Harbor. On Dec. 14, 41 right whales were seen to the west of Jordan Basin during another NOAA flyover.

In a press release issued Wednesday, NOAA officials indicated that scientists estimate that there are only 325 right whales left in the North Atlantic. Many female right whales head south in the winter to give birth off Florida and Georgia, but where other whales congregate during the colder months has been difficult to determine, they wrote in the release. Knowing where the whales are is critical to enacting rules that can protect them, they indicated.

“We’re excited because seeing 44 right whales together in the Gulf of Maine is a record for the winter months, when daily observations of three or five animals are much more common,” Tim Cole, head of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center survey team, said in the release. “Right whales are baleen whales and in the winter spend a lot of time diving for food deep in the water column. Seeing so many of them at the surface when we are flying over an area is a bit of luck.”

NOAA officials indicated in the release that the Jordan Basin area also might double as a breeding ground for the whales. They said NOAA has improved its survey methodology in recent years in hopes of learning more about where whales congregate in the winter.

What kind of rules regulators use to protect right whales has been a point of concern for Maine’s lobster industry. Whale researchers say many whales get entangled in lobster fishing gear or at least show signs of having been entangled.

Ship strikes also are believed to be responsible for whale deaths. On Dec. 9, new federal rules governing the speed of large ships in the vicinity of whales went into effect, according to the NOAA release.

This coming April, the federal government also is expected to start requiring all lobstermen who set their gear outside a boundary line approximately three miles from shore to use sinking ground lines on their traps. Most lobstermen in Maine have preferred to use float rope, which floats up toward the surface between traps, because it is less expensive and less likely to get tangled on rocky ocean bottom. But scientists believe that float rope is more dangerous for whales because it creates vertical underwater loops that are more likely to ensnare whales as they dive toward the bottom to feed.

Many fishermen have said the federal mandate to use sinking ground lines will be more dangerous for fishermen as they handle their gear at sea. The cost of using and subsequently replacing worn-out sinking rope likely will put many out of business, fishermen have added, especially if catch levels continue to decline and if the price of lobster remains substantially lower than it has in the recent past.

This past fall, the price lobstermen got for their catch fell to around $2 per pound, even though the average annual price lobstermen have received for their catch has been more than $4 per pound the past four years. Maine lobstermen caught more than $280 million worth of lobster in 2007, according to state statistics.

Attempts Wednesday to directly contact officials with NOAA and with Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the state’s largest commercial fishermen’s organization, were unsuccessful.

btrotter@bangordailynews.net

460-6318

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