PROVINCETOWN — Experts concerned about the health of North Atlantic right whales arriving in Cape Cod Bay are reminding boaters of the state’s speed and distance restrictions to try to protect the endangered mammals on their journey north.
Between January and last week, the team from the Center for Coastal Studies’ Right Whale Ecology Program had identified at least 171 individual whales in the bay, earlier than most years — almost half of the near-extinct population of North Atlantic right whales.
Over the past two weeks, the center’s North Atlantic right whale observation team has seen the first mothers and their calves arrive in the waters of Cape Cod Bay from their birthplace off the southeastern US coast. On March 25, teams sighted four pairs, according to the center.
To protect them, boats are required to travel no more than 10 knots in designated areas, including Cape Cod waters, and boats and planes are required to stay at least 500 meters away from the right whales. These restrictions are due to the protection of right whales under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Conservation Act, the Center for Coastal Studies said in a reminder this week.
The safety restrictions are being stressed at a time when a large percentage of the estimated 336 animals remaining on Earth are arriving in Cape Cod Bay, to the delight of observers from Race Point and elsewhere on land, as well as scientists in the air. The greatest threat to the survival of the giant species is being hit by a ship or becoming entangled in a rope.
Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the center’s Right Whale Ecology Program, said casual viewers in Provincetown have been getting quite a show over the past few weeks. You “get extraordinary views of an animal rarer than a gorilla or a snow leopard — one of the rarest large mammals on earth,” he said in a recent phone interview. “And (people) can walk, take an hour-long hike down the beach to Race Point Lighthouse and see right whales up close. That’s pretty special.”
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Mayo referred to the local waters as a “sanctuary” for new mothers and their vulnerable offspring on their perilous and long trek.
“These animals come here after a long and dangerous journey through areas that aren’t as strictly protected as Cape Cod Bay. The bay can be seen as a nursery for right whale mothers who nurse their calves and they will likely be here for a while,” he said in a written statement this week. “Seafarers should be aware that government regulation for all boats is 10 knots or less. You have to be alert and on the lookout for these animals, they can be very difficult to spot…(and) calves are very small.”
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has imposed a seasonal speed limit of 10 knots through Cape Cod Bay from March 1 through April 30 for vessels less than 65 feet in length. This restriction, supplemented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), can be extended if whales remain in the region, the center noted.
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So far this year, 15 right whale calves – vital to the species’ survival – have been identified in the southeastern United States. Last year, one of the 18 calves born was killed after being hit by a ship, and in 2020 two calves were killed by ship strikes, the center said.
The whale, named Tripelago, and its calf on March 15 became the first right whale mother and calf pair to invade Cape Cod Bay this year, spotted by the center’s air team. This year’s offspring is the fifth calf for Tripelago, who, according to the center, is said to have survived two rope entanglements.
On March 25, the CCS team counted three more mothers — known as Slalom, Mantis, and Silt — and their calves in Cape Cod Bay. Slalom has given birth six times and survived six entanglements, while Silt has given birth five times and survived four entanglements, according to the center’s information.
According to experts, the arrival of large numbers of whales around Cape Cod this year was unusually early. The first right whale of the season was sighted in Wellfleet waters in December. On February 26, during a four-hour aerial survey, 99 right whales were seen feeding near the surface of the bay — one of the highest numbers at the start of the season, according to Mayo.
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Scientists are studying how climate change is affecting where right whales go and whether foraging grounds other than Cape Cod Bay offer less of what the animals need than in the past.
North Atlantic right whale populations increased globally until about 2000, Mayo said, and then began declining, sparking global concern.
“But the odd thing is that since 2010, the number of visitors to (Cape Cod) Bay has increased, so we have a decreasing number in the overall population and an increasing number in the segment of the population that comes here,” Mayo said in the phone interview. Given this year’s rising numbers, “the only way to explain this oddity is that the remaining right whales appear to be preferentially choosing Cape Cod Bay, at least for now. There is no other way to explain the oddity that there are fewer whales in the world but more whales here.”
From a conservation perspective, the high number of whale visits this year is potentially worrying, he said.
“Imagine these whales have other places to feed and that’s the main thing they do here in Cape Cod Bay. This is a very important breeding ground,” he said.
The high concentration of right whales that come here could mean that “the food here is just great, it’s gotten better now and that’s why more whales come. But the other possibility, which I think is pretty real, is that offshore areas that we don’t know about, places that were maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago, aren’t as good now like in old times. ”
So “it can’t be that Cape Cod Bay is really great for them. It may not be the case elsewhere and we don’t know the answer it’s written on. That’s one of the things we’re trying to work on,” he said. “Cape Cod Bay is still a good place, isn’t it? Is it just where they go because they can’t fill their stomachs anywhere else? And you really hope it’s not.”
Contact Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @KathiSDCCT.