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Erin Burke

Erin Burke

Protected Species Specialist, Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF)

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It’s that time of year again, as MarineFisheries and our partners at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies make preparations for the upcoming right whale season in Cape Cod Bay. Last year we documented 201 individual right whales! That’s around 46 percent of the known population and the highest number recorded during our 13-year study. This highlights the value our waters to these endangered whales and the critical importance of our protective measures. We can’t wait to see what 2011 brings!

Right whales typically gather in Cape Cod Bay from January through May, with peaks in March and April. Historically, however, that time window may have been wider. When the Pilgrims first arrived in Massachusetts in November 1620, they were greeted by right whales after making landfall in Provincetown. This year I’m especially curious to see if we get any “early stragglers” to the Bay because aggregations of right whales have spent much of the late summer and autumn occupying nearby Jeffreys Ledge off New Hampshire. This summer, instead of large groups of right whales lingering in their usual haunt, the Bay of Fundy, they were scattered in pockets across the Gulf of Maine. Whatever the allure of Jeffreys Ledge in recent months…it makes me wonder if we’ll see whales in Cape Cod Bay early this year.

My last post described how the exodus of whales from Cape Cod Bay in late April 2010 was quickly followed by sightings of a large feeding aggregation in Rhode Island Sound. The timing was very curious – 70 right whales disappeared from Cape Cod Bay and a few days later 100 pop up off Rhode Island. Did our whales cruise down to the Ocean State once food dwindled in the Bay? The answer turns out to be no. After examining the photo-ID and sighting history of whales in each location, we found that only 1 individual was seen during both feeding events. The other whales probably came from the Great South Channel off Chatham, or were traveling up from the Southeast US, a habitat for many right whales during the winter.

With only around 436 individuals in this population, we get to know them pretty well, and it’s interesting to see how they use different habitats and make decisions. As always, I’ll keep you posted as the 2011 right whale season progresses in Cape Cod Bay.

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