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Will adaptability save the North Atlantic right whale?

Changes to migration patterns are complicating efforts to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

According to the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, a new study has found that endangered whales are spending more time in Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Massachusetts before moving north. 

The study was published in Global Ecology and Conservation, the New England Aquarium said in a news release, and “examined the impacts of climate change on the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine ecosystem.”

Some whale rescue experts worry that the southern migration of the right whales will increase their risk of entanglement. (Submitted by the New England Aquarium)

Scientists conducting the study found that when spring comes early, “the temperature cue directing right whales to Cape Cod Bay occurs earlier, extending the amount of time whales are spending in this habitat,” the release said.

Right whales feed on copepods, tiny crustaceans which were once plentiful in the Bay of Fundy. The whales have since migrated to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to find their food source, as well as to Cape Cod Bay. 

Laura Ganley, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium, said the expectation was that earlier springs would have “higher densities” of the right whales’ primary food source. But she said that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

Laura Ganley, research scientist with New England Aquarium, said as right whales migrate to Cape Cod Bay, conservation efforts need to move with them. (Submitted by the New England Aquarium )

“The higher number of right whales and lower prey availability … could unfortunately be a warning sign that the whales’ nutritional needs are not being met,” Ganley said.

She said knowing about this shift in behaviour “presents an opportunity.” 

“If we’re not one step ahead of them and have put those mitigation measures in place to slow down vessels and reduce entanglement risks, then it is going to be a problem,” she said. 

“That’s when you get high mortality events.” 

Ganley said the study in Global Ecology and Conservation builds on research published earlier this month by the New England Aquarium. That research, co-authored by Ganley, “revealed right whales’ peak use of Cape Cod Bay has shifted almost three weeks later over the past 20 years.” 

‘It’s disheartening’ 

Mackie Greene, the director of Campobello Whale Rescue, said signs that the right whales are staying south is “disheartening,” because it will make rescue efforts much more difficult. 

Campobello Whale Rescue director Mackie Greene is worried migration will make rescuing North Atlantic right whales more difficult. (CBC)

“When they get into a pattern, we can get used to it and know which fisheries are affected and where we should concentrate our efforts,” said Greene. 

“When they keep changing their routine, it makes it really hard.” 

Greene said right whales moving south and widening their range increases their chances of entanglement.

Might run out of places to go 

Ganley said while the migration is worrisome because the whales might run out of places to go as climate change continues to cause temperatures to rise, it can also be seen in a positive light, revealing the ability to adapt to new realities.

“They have the ability to figure out, ‘Oh the Gulf of St. Lawrence, that’s the place to be,'” she said. 

“That’s cool to me that they have the ability to adapt.” 

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