Pace Quickens as Researchers Converge on Northern Right Whale Calving Grounds
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April 29 2007 
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Richard Pace
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If it’s winter, then Northern right whales are calving in the warm waters off Florida and Georgia.  Our own Richard Pace is there too, coordinating collection of skin samples from the whales to augment the growing DNA collection used to identify individual whales as well as in a host of population and genetic studies.  The work is being conducted under the NEFSC’s Marine Mammal Protection Act research permit.

Pace is collaborating with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on the work.  They’re focusing on right whale calves, as well as any noncalves from which skin samples have not been collected.

Genetic analysis is powerful tool for Northern right whale researchers. To date, DNA from nearly 300 Northern right whales has been banked, and researchers continue their work to create a genetic profile for each individual.  These data are also used to assess genetic variation in the population, get a handle on the number of reproductively active individuals, measure health, and understand their mating system.

We’ll find out more from Pace when he returns at the end of the month: tanned, rested, and ready for sighting season off Massachusetts.  While Pace and his group are looking for opportunities to get skin samples, other researchers as well as the disentanglement and stranding components of NOAA’s large whale conservation effort are getting a work-out.  Here are a few more updates from the first big field season of the year for right whale conservationists.

mother and calf
Northern right whale mother and calf photographed by aerial survey team off the Southeastern U.S.

NOAA’s partners, including Wildlife Trust, the New England Aquarium, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Georgia Department of Natural Resources, are conducting the annual aerial surveys of southeastern waters looking for females with new calves and hoping to identify individual mothers.  As of February 16, the teams have spotted 16 new calves, and 14 mother-calf pairs of which six may be first-time mothers. Spotters have also reported about 40 sightings of right whales that are not apparent mothers or calves.  These figures are preliminary and will likely change as more animals are located or some sightings prove to be duplicates or errors.  

Entangled Northern right whale photographed by aerial survey team off Florida, January 15, 2007

Meanwhile, in mid-January the aerial teams spotted an entangled Northern right whale near Cumberland Island, Georgia, about 13 miles off shore. Members of NOAA’s  Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network responded, including people from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and NOAA Fisheries Service.  They were able to assess and document the entanglement, deploy a satellite telemetry tag, and remove a small portion of the trailing line. The sample from the line will be examined in hopes of determining the fishery where it originated. On January 24, a response team was able to remove additional line, leaving an entanglement that is classified as a minor health threat to the whale.  That Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network effort involved staff and support from NOAA Fisheries Service, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Duke University.

Finally, on January 26, partners in the NOAA Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Network collected a dead newborn northern right whale from the beach near Ponte Vedra, Florida.  The animal, a male, was necropsied at the University of Florida.  The cause of death appeared to be natural, and samples will be sent to the tissue bank to determine, if possible, parental lines.

Posted February 16, 2007
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(File Modified Feb. 16 2007)