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Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference Document 12-09

North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) and Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) 2011 Results Summary

by Christin Khan1, Tim Cole1, Peter Duley1, Allison Henry1, Jennifer Gatzke2, Peter Corkeron1

1NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water St., Woods Hole, MA 02543
2Integrated Statistics, 16 Sumner St., Woods Hole, MA 02543

Web version posted May 23, 2012

Citation: Khan C, Cole T, Duley P, Henry A, Gatzke J, Corkeron. 2012. North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) and Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) 2011 Results Summary. US Dept Commer, Northeast Fish Sci Cent Ref Doc. 12-09; 6 p. Available from: National Marine Fisheries Service, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543-1026, or online at

Information Quality Act Compliance: In accordance with section 515 of Public Law 106-554, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center completed both technical and policy reviews for this report. These predissemination reviews are on file at the NEFSC Editorial Office.

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North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS)

The North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) is a NOAA Fisheries program which locates and records the seasonal distribution of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) off the northeastern coast of the United States. NARWSS flights conducted in 2011 followed systematic track lines with randomized starting locations within 11 primary survey blocks: Cashes Ledge, Georges Basin, Georges Shoal, Great South Channel, Howell Swell, Jeffreys Ledge, Jordan Basin, Lindenkohl Basin, Rhode Island Sound, Stellwagen Bank, and Stellwagen Sanctuary. During 2011, NARWSS flew 247 hours over 55 surveys, including a sawtooth survey over the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a directed flight to locate a humpback whale carcass, and a directed flight to assist the R/V Delaware II North Atlantic Right Whale Biology Cruise. NARWSS detected 473 right whales within survey blocks and sighted an additional 28 right whales during transits to or from survey areas. Table 1 summarizes survey effort and right whale sightings by month. Figures 1a-c display the locations of right whales and survey effort by season. NARWSS did not conduct aerial surveys from July through October of 2011. Table 2 provides a comparison of NARWSS flights, flight hours, and right whale sightings across years.

Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS)

In 2009, the Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) was re-engineered to support new regulations to reduce the threat of ship collisions with right whales (50 CFR Part 224). The regulations establish speed restrictions of 10 knots or less for all vessels of length 65 ft (19.8 m) or greater within Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs). The SMAs encompass high-risk vessel collision areas along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard where right whale sightings predictably and consistently occur each year [1]. When three or more right whales are sighted in close proximity but outside of SMAs, a Dynamic Management Area (DMA) is established for 15 days to accommodate the whales’ movements (Clapham and Pace 2012 [2]) and mariners are expected to either avoid the area or travel through it at 10 knots or less. The size of the DMA depends on the number of right whales sighted in the area. Mariners are notified of DMAs via email, an interactive Google Map website[3], Broadcast Notice to Mariners (BNM), NOAA Weather Radio, and the Mandatory Ship Reporting system (MSR). Unlike SMAs, compliance is voluntary for DMAs. In 2011, 24 DMAs (including extensions) were triggered by validated reports, of which 10 came from NARWSS. The RWSAS continued collecting sighting reports from sources including aerial surveys, shipboard research surveys, commercial whale watch vessels, and opportunistic sources (Coast Guard, commercial ships, fishing vessels, and the general public). The most common source of reports in 2011 was aerial surveys (393 reports - 50%; see Table 3). Most sightings were in the Northeast (New York through Maine), where the number of reports per month ranged from 7 in July to 187 in April (Figure 2a and Table 3a). Most reports in the Mid-Atlantic (New Jersey through Virginia) were from the Coast Guard (Figure 2a and Table 3c). Most reports in Canadian waters were from shipboard research surveys (Figure 2a and Table 3c). Logging acoustic detections was discontinued in 2009 due to their frequency. Instead, public and shipping interests were provided links to the automated acoustic detection websites maintained by the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology[4].
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