World Wildlife Day: Lowest North Atlantic right whale calving season in 15 years intensifies need for solutions

North Atlantic right whales have made headlines lately, and not just because they’re spending time off the coast of Cape Cod. Sadly, reports about the endangered whales have focused on the news that birth rates are now below the mortality rate – indicating population decline. Just three calves were born this winter, the lowest rate in at least 15 years.

A birth rate lower than the mortality rate means that not enough calves are being born to replace the ones that are dying. A likely factor in the decrease of births is the whales’ difficulty in finding reliable food sources. Without adequate fat storage, female right whales are giving birth every seven or so years instead of the normal rate of every three years.

This is troubling for any wildlife species, but especially so for the North Atlantic right whale, of which scientists say just 524 or so remain. (100 are breeding females.)

The recent designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first of its kind along the Atlantic seaboard – may help provide these whales with more reliable food sources. Science shows the monument area to be rich with marine wildlife, and with the 4,913 square miles protected from most industrial activity, undisturbed populations of plankton and copepods could help these whales in the long run.

Restoring food sources, though, is a long game, that faces a tougher trajectory as the ocean is becoming more and more crowded and temperatures are rising. With right whales moving around more often in search of food, they are at increased risk of facing their two largest (human-caused) threats: becoming entangled in fishing gear and being hit by a ship.

Ship strikes

Right whales tend to swim close to the surface, making them potential targets for ships that are moving quickly and/or don’t see the whales. The good news is that mortality rates from ship strikes are no longer increasing (even as ship traffic increases) after regulations were put into place requiring ships to decrease their speed in certain areas frequented by right whales during certain times of year. The bad news is that ship strikes are still a leading cause of death for right whales – averaging about one per year.

Fishing gear entanglements

Approximately four to five right whales die each year due to fishing gear entanglements, making it the leading cause of death for the species. In September 2016, Whale 3694 died of “chronic entanglement.” This death was even more heartbreaking than usual since she was of breeding age. It remains unclear whose fishing gear – or even which type of fishery – was responsible for the whale’s death.

Thankfully, there are groups working to understand which types of gear are most responsible for the deaths, and how changes in material and/or flexibility could help pose less of a risk for right whales. The Marine Mammal Commission is focusing its 2017 annual meeting on right whales; New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life has a research program aimed at finding solutions; other groups like the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the Center for Coastal Studies – among many others – are working together to get right whales back on track toward population growth.

It’s worth noting that scientists are also working to identify other factors that could be at play to explain this year’s dramatically low number of calves, such as population-wide illness, pollution issues, or a genetic dysfunction. Calving season typically goes through the end of this month, so it’s possible we may still see another calf born before the winter is over.

The recent news is disappointing, and with attacks on the Endangered Species Act potentially brewing in congress, it’s critical that this work continues.

Read more about the North Atlantic right whale in our species profile, and share this post on Twitter with the #WorldWildlifeDay hashtag to help us raise awareness. 

Marine Mammals and Underwater Mountains: More Evidence for Protecting Habitats with Diverse Wildlife

The deep-water canyons, seamounts, and underwater mountain ranges in the coastal waters of New England are gaining recognition for their importance to the health of fish populations like the struggling Atlantic cod. But these unique geological formations are also critical for the marine mammals that call the North Atlantic home.

Hail the WhalesNorth Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf

The Atlantic coast is a veritable highway for migrating whales, which travel from breeding grounds in the south to feeding grounds in the north each year. But with many species facing reduced habitat, diminished populations, and increased boat traffic, this annual journey has become more and more difficult. These growing threats make areas of food abundance and shelter, such as Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ever more critical to the success of migrating whales’ journeys.

Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts are unique in the Atlantic because their topography creates ideal conditions for plankton, zooplankton, and copepods – the main food for migrating minke, right, and humpback whales – to thrive. They also serve as spawning ground for larger food sources – including many squish, fish, and crustaceans. Altogether, this rich abundance of species adds up to a bountiful buffet for whales and other marine mammals.

Sperm whales have often been spotted in the waters of seamounts, taking advantage of the reliable food, and Cashes Ledge serves as an oasis for hungry whales on their journey north.

The healthy kelp domino effect

These areas are not only crucial to whales; other marine mammals depend on them as well. Cashes Ledge boasts the largest coldwater kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard, a habitat that creates ideal spawning grounds for cod, herring, and hake. The abundance of fish in turn feeds seals and porpoises, as well as whales.

Scientists have noted a positive correlation between the size of an undersea kelp forest and populations of marine mammals, suggesting that more, healthy kelp means more marine mammals. That makes protecting areas with large kelp forests such as Cashes Ledge even more important.

Even marine mammals that don’t visit Cashes Ledge itself still benefit from the protection of the area’s kelp forest, thanks to the “spillover effect:” Fish spawned in the shelter of the rocky crevasses and havens of the kelp forests disperse beyond Cashes Ledge and feed sea animals throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Across the globe, underwater mountain and canyon habitats have proved to be important areas where marine mammals congregate to feed – and the canyons, seamounts, and ledges off the coast of New England are no different. Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are delicate and facing threats from harmful fishing gear and climate change.

With so much at stake, it is vital to protect these places – not only for their inherent ecological value, but also so that they may sustain the mammals that depend on them.

Fish Friday: The Hooded Seal – Battling Foes with a Bladder Nose

Welcome to another installation of Fish Friday! For the past six weeks, we’ve stayed true to our name and featured nothing but fish. But this week, we couldn’t resist sharing this super adorable, territorial, and insanely weird Gulf of Maine marine mammal visitor – the hooded seal (Cystophora cristata). HoodedSeal

Bladder Noses

Hooded seal pups are born cute and fluffy with blue-black pelts. They’re about 3 feet long and weigh 55 pounds at birth. They quickly shoot up to 90 pounds before they are weaned at around 4 days old (the shortest weaning period for any mammal)! At five days old, pups begin to eat crustaceans while honing their swimming and diving skills. What a busy first week of life!

Once males reach sexual maturity, the days of cute, fuzzy little noses are gone. Between 5 and 7 years old, male hooded seals develop an elastic, bi-lobed nasal cavity and nasal septum that can inflate from the front of the face to the top of the head. When inflated, a seal’s “hood” resembles a pink balloon — smack dab in the middle of its face! Hence the nickname “bladder nose.”

Males use this “bladder nose” to get females’ attention during mating season and to scare off competition for mates. It may not sound like the most frightening tactic, but think about it – if your adversary could blow up his nasal cavity to twice the size of your own nose balloon, you’d probably realize your infinitesimal chances at winning that fight and scamper off to pursue another potential mate.

Sizing each other up via nose balloon size saves these big guys a lot of energy — but if it looks like an evenly-matched fight, they will resort to physical blows.

And when adult male hooded seals battle, there’s a lot of weight thrown around. At around 8 feet long and some 660 pounds, it takes a lot of effort to just move, let alone fling their bodies at competitors. (Females are noticeably smaller than males, weighing in at around 440 pounds and measuring about 7 feet long.)

These seals are less social, more territorial, and more aggressive than other seal species. They gather together at their historic breeding grounds in the spring to produce young and molt. The main breeding grounds include the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Davis Strait, and the Norwegian Sea near Jan Mayen Island.

After breeding and molting, hooded seals spend a majority of the year migrating. Many pass through the Gulf of Maine during their travels. While some are spotted as far south as Florida and the Caribbean, most stay in the Arctic Ocean and Northern Atlantic, where they thrive on pack ice in colder waters.

Hooded seals spend their days diving to depths of about 325-1,950 feet, searching for crustaceans, squid, starfish, mussels, and fish such as cod, halibut, and herring. Their only known natural predators are polar bears and orcas — but human hunting has had a huge impact on hooded seal populations.

Historically Hunted

In the 19th and 20th centuries, hooded seals were hunted commercially, mainly by Norway, the Soviet Union, Canada, and Greenland. Adults were harvested for oil and leather products, while pups were taken for their prized blue-black pelts.

In the 1970s, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) was created and began managing seal harvesting in international waters. NAFO controls sealer licenses, sets quotas for allowable take, prohibits harvesting in specific regions, and has banned all pup harvests. In the early 1980s, the European Economic Community outlawed hooded seal commercial harvests, as well as the import of hooded seal products. In the United States, hooded seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

On Thin Ice

Unfortunately, many hooded seal populations are still vulnerable to a number of threats. Illegal harvests still occur, even though populations are carefully managed. Fisheries catch and discard hooded seals as bycatch and may force seals into competition for food.

Finally, as a pack ice- and cold water-dependent species, the future of hooded seals on a warming planet remains uncertain. Will their breeding grounds still exist in 50 years? Will prey species such as Arctic cod be available? Will polar development further expose Arctic marine mammals to contaminants and pollutants?

For now, we must focus on limiting the indirect impacts to hooded seal populations. Let’s work hard to reduce our emissions and to ensure that our fisheries are sustainable. In doing so, we’ll be protecting the hooded seals and the ecosystems within which they exist.


Booming New England Seal Population Creates a Management Challenge

Note: This originally ran on Talking Fish on September 18th. Photograph by Rich MacDowell as entered in the New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest

Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, forty years ago. Intended to slow the precipitous decline of marine mammal populations due to human activities, the act prohibited the killing, harassment, or excessive disturbance of marine mammals in United States waters.

For seals in New England—mainly harbor seals and gray seals—the MMPA’s protections effected a massive boom in population. Previously, the animals were considered a nuisance to fishermen and tourists. Coastal states frequently offered bounties for the killing of seals. One study estimates that between 1888 and 1962, over 100,000 seals were killed in the bounty hunt in Maine and Massachusetts alone. This mass killing was enough to trigger significant regional declines in numbers. In 1973, a survey of Maine waters counted just 5,800 harbor seals; this was likely almost the entire population at that time.

The MMPA effectively stopped the bounty hunt in its tracks, and seal numbers have risen rapidly as a result. Each female harbor seal pups once a year and survival rates in New England without predators are high. In 2001, the estimated population of harbor seals in New England had recovered to 99,340 individuals; the observed number rose by 28.7% just between 1997 and 2001. Gray seals have seen a similar increase in numbers. On Muskeget Island, just 19 adult gray seals were observed in 1994; in 2011, a census estimated between 3500 and 3800 seals. The overall observed population of gray seals in Massachusetts has increased from 5,611 to 15,756 between 1999 and 2011.

This booming, unrestricted seal population has costs.  Seals eat commercially valuable fish like cod and herring, often taking the catch right out of fishermen’s nets. They can also cause costly damage to fishing gear. In 2011, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans determined that gray seals were hindering cod stock recovery, and the minister of fisheries proposed a cull of 140,000 seals.  It’s possible they may be having a similar effect in the Gulf of Maine.

To some degree, nature is responding to this abundant, high value food source. Rising seal numbers have been linked to the apparent increase in great white sharks around Cape Cod, particularly near the large seal colonies on Muskeget and Monomoy. Sightings of great whites have increased notably in the past decade, and this summer, a swimmer off Cape Cod was attacked by one for the first time since 1936. Killer whales and other high level predators also once controlled seals in this region and may return in the future in greater numbers.

In the mean time, seals are becoming a growing political problem. A local fisherman recently pointed out the seal problem to John Bullard, the new Regional Administrator for NOAA, at an open meeting in Scituate. Tensions are also rising between the seals and local residents. Last summer, five gray seals were found shot on Cape Cod beaches.

Coming to agreement about the appropriate management response to this situation is challenging. On one hand, the rising numbers can be viewed as a remarkable success of the MMPA and a return to natural conditions. One conservation response is to argue that the seal population will start to limit itself as numbers approach carrying capacity or as recovering shark numbers or other marine predators catch up with the new abundance of prey. On the other hand, some stakeholders have called for new, direct methods to limit seal numbers, including culling. The Seal Abatement Coalition has circulated a petition calling for “an amendment or exception to the Marine Mammal Protection Act which would permit the humane dispersion of [gray] seals.”

The original text of the MMPA allows the secretary of commerce to make some exceptions to the no-take rules, taking into account “the conservation, development, and utilization of fishery resources,” provided that “the taking of such marine mammal is in accord with sound principles of resource protection and conservation.” These have included the issuance of permits for marine mammals caught incidentally by commercial fishing operations. NOAA has also previously allowed the dispersion of sea lions in California that damage fishing gear and has permitted the killing of sea lions that were eating endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that culling of New England’s seals will be allowed.  Beachgoers like spotting these charismatic animals and seal watching tours have become popular in some coastal communities. Harbor and gray seals are not widely regarded by the public as a nuisance, unlike California sea lions. In this context, it would take an “act of god” (as one state administrator put it)—or at the very least an act of Congress—to begin culling seals in New EnglandAs a Chatham fisherman told NPR last month, “There’s not a congressman in his right mind that’s going to be the first one out that says, ‘Let’s go harvest seals.’” Even with fisheries, the case for seal culling is modest. A recent study suggests that even if marine mammals were completely removed from the environment, potential catch from fisheries may not be dramatically improved.

There may be technologies that act or could act to reduce seal-fishing gear interactions non-lethally. “Pingers” like those used to deter porpoises from gill nets could be used to scare seals away from fishing gear. Still, this technology could be expensive to implement and may be ineffective on seals, which are highly intelligent animals and might even become attracted to the noise over time as they learn to associate it with readily available fish.

The solutions to New England’s exploding seal populations are not obvious, but the pressure for responses is growing and will continue to build. Seals are no longer just the stuff of children’s books and aquaria exhibits; they are back in force and growing rapidly. Natural seal mortality rates will undoubtedly increase over time, but as long as people and seals are both chasing after the same scarce fish resources, soon may not be soon enough for some.

Longfin Squid: A Meditation in Green

Why is the water in this beautiful image so green? In short, New England is blessed with rich, productive oceans.

The green in the water is from the chlorophyll found inside tiny phytoplankton that float around and harvest sunlight, turning it into the food that anchors our web of life. All other life in the sea depends on these little energy powerhouses.

The fertile, green waters of the North Atlantic are home to many wonders. The longfin squid featured in this photo are some of my favorites. The squid spend their short lives (less than a year) in coastal waters from Canada to Venezuela. Racecar sleek and gorgeous, the squid use chromatophores in their skin to flash and strobe different colors to suit their mood. Longfin squid school together to reproduce, which they can do at any time of year. Males compete fiercely to breed, and can flash red to warn other males away when they are mating.

Look carefully at the picture, and you can see the squid’s surreal, giant eyes. Squid’s eyes are very similar to our own. Excellent vision, combined with lightning speed (squid are the fastest invertebrate swimmers), make them fantastic hunters. Longfins jet through the water, chasing herring, menhaden, mackerel, and many other fish. They are aggressive predators, and will eat fish almost as big as they are (around a foot long), and will even eat each other. Longfin squid are, in turn, important food for larger fish and marine mammals. These squid are also commercially fished, and odds are good that if you enjoy calamari, you have eaten them.

Look at this sublimely colored image one more time, and think about all the different reasons that green matters to you. From lush, emerald rainforests, to sweeping tallgrass prairies, to the murky green depths of our productive coastal sea, green is the color that feeds us, body and soul.