Jersey Shore whale watching finds increased numbers

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It’s no secret that a significant portion of Philadelphia travels year after year to the Jersey Shore. It turns out that humpback whales do it too – sometimes staying for months at a time, according to a new study of the massive creatures.

Researchers scoured the ocean with high-powered cameras for seven years, tracking whales to find out how they might be protected from harm.

Humpback whales are in the seventh year of an “unusual mortality event” along the Atlantic coast, according to the US government. In some cases they died from impact with a transport ship.

Busy waters off New Jersey and New York are particularly problematic, said Rutgers University ecologist Danielle M. Brown, lead author of the new study.

“It’s a high-risk area,” she said. “It is important to know how long these whales stay here and if they return year after year to this busy area because their level of exposure is increased.”

Although the reasons for the increase in whale sightings aren’t entirely clear, a leading theory is the abundance of fish they like to eat, called menhaden, said Brown, a Rutgers doctoral candidate who also works at a New York-based non-profit organization called Gotham Whale. .

Equipped with zoom lenses aboard Gotham’s 29-passenger whale-watching boat, the American Princess, she and her colleagues tracked humpback whales looking for distinctive markings on their skin – mostly on the undersides of their tail fins. , called moats.

“It’s similar to a human fingerprint,” she said. “It’s unique to each humpback whale.”

The team scoured the ocean during the spring to fall feeding seasons from 2012 to 2018, from Manasquan Inlet at the northern edge of Ocean County to Fire Island in New York. They also welcomed photos from the public, as long as they included a date and GPS location.

In total, the group identified 101 humpback whales in the study, 59 of which were seen multiple times. Most were juveniles measuring 25 to 30 feet in length (adults can reach 60 feet).

The researchers then compared this “catalogue” of whales with those of other whale-watching groups along the coast and found that dozens of the same humpback whales were also feeding there, including 15 in the waters below. off Cape May.

Matching whales from photo to photo requires a keen eye, said co-author Melissa Laurino, who helped identify all 15 Cape May whales in her work as research director at the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center.

“It’s fun watching whales and dolphins all season long, but a lot of the research takes place in front of a computer screen,” she said.

These western Atlantic humpback whales typically spend the winter breeding season in the Caribbean, then migrate north in the spring to eat mackerel and herring – primarily in the Gulf of Maine and eastern Canadian waters. and Greenland.

But judging by the increase in sightings over the past decade, more humpback whales appear to be stopping in New Jersey and New York, where their primary food source is menhaden. These fish, sometimes called bunker or pogy, are also sought after by the fishing industry, which sells them as bait and for use in fertilizers, pet food and fish oil supplements.

For now, the ocean appears to have enough menhaden for whales and humans, after regulators began imposing catch limits a decade ago (although some in the fishing industry have argued that quotas were useless).

Yet with the apparent increase in the number of humpback whales off New Jersey, New York and other Atlantic states, more whales are dying. For 6 and a half years, 161 humpback whales have washed ashore along the East Coast, including 57 in New Jersey, New York and Delaware, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The fate of the whales is not known in all cases, but most do not survive.

In New Jersey and New York, shipping vessels are one of the biggest risks to humpback whales, said Brown, the study’s author. Recreational boats can also pose a threat if they get too close and disrupt mammal feeding, she said. Boats should stay at least 100 feet away from humpback whales, further if multiple boats are in the area.

Determining the cause of a whale’s death can be tricky, as in the case of a humpback whale found July 10 in Wildwood Crest, trapped under a dock, said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine. . He had been dead for several weeks and was too decomposed to say how he died.

Workers waited for high tide, then towed the carcass to a remote part of the bay and tied it to unused stakes, said Schoelkopf, co-author of Brown’s study.

“That’s where it will stay until it turns into bone,” he said.

Fishing boats aren’t a big threat to humpback whales in this area, though close encounters can happen by accident, Brown said. In June 2020, a humpback whale jumped out of the waters off Seaside Park and struck a fishing boat with a loud thud. Its two passengers were thrown into the water but escaped unscathed.

In July 2021, a humpback whale became entangled in fishing gear in New York’s Ambrose Channel, but rescuers were able to untangle it.

With continued vigilance, Brown and his colleagues aim to protect large mammals from harm. Since the end of the seven-year period covered by the UK’s Journal of the Marine Biological Association study, they haven’t stopped getting out on the water with their zooms.

Since this summer, they have added 156 more to the region’s catalog of humpback whales, for a total of 257.

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