These incidents follow an unfortunate record-setting year for whale mortality around New York waters in 2017, with 14 whales found – including seven minke whales, six humpback whales and one fin whale. “There have been 19 animals found in the last 18 months, so we’ve calculated that is about one whale every 27 days,” says DiGiovanni.
By comparison, there were four large whale deaths in 2016, eight in 2015 and six in 2014. Arthur H. Kopelman, Ph. D., and president of West Sayville, NY-based Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) adds: “[The humpback found on Fire Island] brings the total to 71 since 2016.”
“There have been 19 animals found in the last 18 months, so we’ve calculated that is about one whale every 27 days,” says DiGiovanni.
One of the challenges, says DiGiovanni, is to accurately calculate sightings, and to determine whether 20 whale sightings is actually 20 different whales or the same whale seen 20 times. Luckily, there are ways to improve those calculations. Humpback whales can be identified individually, as they each have unique, identifiable flukes (tail).
Meanwhile other environmental agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducts biopsies of whales and also uses remote tags to identify individual whales and better understand how they are using the New York bight.
So, for instance, is climate change – or, rising water temperatures – leading whales to the area, or are they chasing food sources (perhaps an increase in bunker fish in the area)? Put another way: Is it simply nature, whales changing feeding habits, or a combination of both?
These considerations beg the additional question: Depending on how whales are using the area waters, might we see more whales and potentially more incidents? DiGiovanni says it is possible that we might see the numbers rise, but it is also more important to understand how long they are staying in our waters.
Typically, humpback, minke and fin whales migrate up the east coast in the spring and summer as high as the Bay of Fundy, while migrating to the south in the fall and winter for mating season. Notably, last December, a 20-ton female whale was found dead on the beach in East Atlantic Beach, NY, the cause of death inconclusive.
So what can be done to better protect these majestic animals?
According to DiGiovanni, boaters should obey regulations for protecting whales and avoid approaching whales when sighted. Also, much like a school zone, boaters are advised to abide by speed restrictions on the water to improve response time when sighting these animals. Dr. Kopelman, agrees: “On the water leave them alone and give them space. Never approach them head on, never approach feeding whales and never chase them.”
He adds: “If a whale comes within 150’ take your vessel out of gear and wait until the whale moves away before engaging engines again. Also never approach a whale while under sail. Drop sails near whales.
North Atlantic Right Whales (NARWs) are heavily protected by special rules in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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