marine life

COVID-19 Preventing Critical Research on Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

NBC Universal, Inc.

This is typically a busy time of year for research scientists who would otherwise be tracking and photographing North Atlantic right whales as they make their way to Canada, but COVID-19 has put a pause on their research and it could have a lasting impacting on critical data.

"We've been studying them in detail for 40 years,” explains Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.  “And we have a very, very solid time series so when you have a break in the data it can really impact what we can do with it."

Research is done by boat and plane, neither of which is conducive to safe, social distancing.

"The springtime is when we actually get to see the calves when they've started developing their identifying marks,” says Hamilton.  “So being able to get photographs of them after they've made the migration north is really important."

North Atlantic right whales are a highly endangered species with only around 400 left in existence, and every new birth counts.

According to Hamilton, "This year there have been 10 calves born that we know of which is not a lot but it's better than it's been for the past three years."

For perspective, over the last three years, only 12 new calves have been born. There have been 30 overall known deaths, and more deaths may have been missed. It’s been a grim decade for the right whale population and because of climate change the future does not look bright.

"Starting in 2010 when the Gulf of Maine started getting warmer and warmer, they've shifted where they feed,” says Hamilton. “They're actually coming in to Cape Cod Bay more during the early spring, late winter and early spring but they're not going to areas like the Bay of Fundy where we've been studying them for 40 years as much."

They have, however, been migrating to the cooler waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. But in those waters right whales face a different challenge.

"They've run into harm's way there because all the shipping that goes in and out of the United States goes there as well as a very large crab fishing industry that overlaps with them."

Without being able to travel to Canada amid COVID-19, there is no way to determine how many right whales are dying - another critical element in their data collection. Scientists are hoping to be able to resume research in August.

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