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Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference Document 13-08

North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) and Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) 2012 Results Summary

by Jennifer Gatzke, Christin Khan, Allison Henry, Peter Duley, and Timothy Cole

NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543

Web version posted May 16, 2013

Citation: Gatzke J, Khan C, Henry A, Cole T, Duley P. 2013. North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) and Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) 2012 Results Summary. US Dept Commer, Northeast Fish Sci Cent Ref Doc. 13-08; 7 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 that 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 2012 followed systematic track lines with randomized starting locations within 11 primary survey boxes: Cashes Ledge, Franklin Basin, Georges Basin, Georges Shoal, Great South Channel, Howell Swell, Jeffreys Ledge and Wildcat Knoll, Jordan Basin and Jeffreys Bank, Lindenkohl Basin and Truxton Swell, Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin, and Rhode Island Sound (Figure 1). During 2012, NARWSS flew 275 hours on 64 surveys including a survey of Roseway Basin and a directed survey to search for 2 mother-calf pairs reported south of Long Island NY. NARWSS detected 279 right whales (including repeats of the same individual), with 270 right whales sighted within survey blocks and 9 right whales sighted during transit to or from survey areas. No right whales were sighted on Roseway Basin or south of Long Island. Table 1 summarizes survey effort and right whale sightings by month. Figure 2a-d display the locations of right whales and survey effort by season. 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 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 outside of SMAs, a Dynamic Management Area (DMA) is established for 15 days (Clapham and Pace 2001 [2]). The size of the DMA depends on the number of right whales sighted in the area. Mariners are requested to either avoid the area around the DMA or travel through it at 10 knots or less. Unlike SMAs, compliance is voluntary for DMAs. Mariners are notified of DMAs via email, an interactive Google Map website [3], Broadcast Notices to Mariners (BNM), NOAA Weather Radio, the Mandatory Ship Reporting system (MSR), and the Whale Alert iPhone / iPad app. In 2012, there were 18 Dynamic Management Areas implemented (including extensions), 9 of which were triggered by 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). A report is defined as a unique sighting location or source, and may include multiple whales. The tally of reports therefore differs from a tally of individuals. The most common source of reports in 2012 was aerial surveys (288 reports - 50%; see Table 3). Most sightings were in the Northeast (New York through Maine), where the number of reports per month ranged from 116 in March to 2 in October (Table 3a). Most reports in the Mid-Atlantic (New Jersey through Virginia) were opportunistic (Table 3b and Figure 3b). Most reports in Canadian waters were from shipboard research surveys (Table 3c and Figure 3a). All data were entered into an Oracle database, with basic information available online. The website was updated with sightings and Management Area alerts on a daily basis (see [3] and [1] respectively). 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 Laboratory of Ornithology [4].

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