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Right whales back in local waters — swimming through dangerous areas

Right whales “Caterpillar” (right) and Catalog #4617 (left) feed in the Great South Channel on Feb. 20.
(Courtesy of the New England Aquarium)
Right whales “Caterpillar” (right) and Catalog #4617 (left) feed in the Great South Channel on Feb. 20.

Critically endangered right whales are back in Cape Cod waters. But researchers say right whales seem to be spending more time outside Cape Cod Bay than usual, putting them at higher risk for collisions with boats.

The New England Aquarium (NEAQ) recently spotted 31 right whales across two groups in the Great South Channel, which is east of Nantucket and Cape Cod.

Katherine McKenna, a NEAQ associate scientist who saw them during an aerial survey, said many in the larger group of whales were feeding at the surface.

“They were trying to consume the prey in the water column,” she said. “So that was just a really amazing sight to see.” 

Among the whales was one researchers call Caterpillar. The 19-year-old female has a massive injury from a boat collision, or vessel strike, when she was two-years-old.

“So she's pretty easily recognizable,” McKenna said.

In recent weeks, researchers have seen right whales in Cape Cod Bay, where many typically are found each winter, but McKenna said researchers have seen an unusually high number of right whales in the Great South Channel, where danger is high.

“They've been right in the middle of the shipping lanes. And to have them surfacing to surface feeding in that area, I think increases the risk of a potential vessel interaction,” she said.

The total North Atlantic right whale population stands at just about 350 and “vessel interactions” are one of the two leading causes of death for the critically endangered species.

McKenna added the currently there's no mandatory speed restrictions in the Great South Channel.

“So when we had sightings of this aggregation, it extended what's called a Dynamic Management Area, which is a voluntary speed reduction zone where vessels are urged to go less than ten knots, but they're not required to,” she said.

In Cape Cod Bay, regulators have set up a number of seasonal restrictions, including mandatory 10-knot speed limits and basically a ban on lobster fishing until May.

It’s not the first time North Atlantic right whales have surprised researchers or and shifted where they spend time.

“Over the last several years, we've known climate change has had an impact on the prey of right whales [which has changed] where and when right whales are going to be showing up to feeding areas. It's made their timing and location a little bit more unpredictable than it had been in the past,” McKenna said. “And so this year, with the Great South Channel aggregation, it might be an example of that, [which shows] how important it is for management protections to be adapting with changes in right whale distribution and timing.”

The NEAQ team has faced bad weather in the last few days, but they’re planning to conduct another aerial survey today south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.