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Right Whales, Wrong Place

• May 20, 2009 • 11:57 PM

The good news is that endangered whales can be found where they were thought extinct. The bad news is that a sea-going superhighway may soon overtake their unknown refuge.

According to research presented this week at the Acoustical Society of America conference in Portland, Ore., a team of scientists from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented the presence of right whales in a region where they were previously believed to be extinct.

In 2007, between July and December, the team used hydrophones originally designed to detect undersea earthquakes to record more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations in the Cape Farewell Ground region, an area at the southern tip of Greenland. Scientists believe the previously unstudied area was historically home to an eastern population of North Atlantic right whales nearly hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (A western population spans from Nova Scotia to the Florida panhandle.) In the last 50 years, only two right whales had been sighted in the Cape Farewell Ground area.

The number of recordings suggests the eastern population may persist, but the researchers are unable to estimate the exact number swimming in the frigid waters because, unlike sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins, right whales do not have individually distinct vocalizations.

The scientists are certain, though, that multiple individuals exist. “We did hear right whales at three widely spaced sites on the same day,” the project’s chief scientist David Mellinger said in a press release, “so the absolute minimum is three.” The number may seem small, but with an estimated population between 300 and 400, any documentation of additional North Atlantic right whales is significant whether or not they are members of an eastern population.

For researchers and whale lovers alike, however, the discovery of right whales in the Cape Farewell Ground area is both joyous and concerning. Should continued polar ice melt permanently open a Northwest Passage, the endangered, slow-moving mammal would be at even greater risk of ship strikes. (An average of 1.2 right whales are killed in ship strikes each year — a number that does not include death by fishing gear entanglement.) According to the vocalization recordings, the whales migrate from the southwest to northeast area of Cape Farewell Ground during the summer months, thereby placing themselves directly in the path of proposed shipping lanes.

“Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia, but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region,” said NOAA right whale expert Phillip Clapham in the press release, “It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population.”

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Julia Griffin
Julia Griffin is a master's candidate in environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A fellow at the Miller-McCune Center in 2009, before that she worked as a film researcher for John-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Future Society and a producer/writer in CNN's Science and Technology Unit. She has a degree in marine biology from Duke University, and hopes to pursue a career in science and environmental journalism.

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