Biodiversity: NOAA research voyage aims to track rare North Pacific right whales

New data from the Gulf of Alaska expedition will help guide ongoing conservation efforts

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North Pacific right whales are among the most endangered marine mammal species. There may be as few as 30 individuals remaining. Photo via NOAA.

Staff Report

FRISCO —There may only be about 30 North Pacific right whales remaining, but fisheries scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are determined to do all they can to try and save the species.

To start, a team of researchers has set out on a month-long research voyage to track the whales in the Gulf of Alaska, where they sometimes visit. North Pacific right whales may be the  most endangered marine mammal to visit U.S. waters. The species was decimated by historic whaling in the 19th century, as well as illegal whaling by the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

“We actually know very little about this species,” said Brenda Rone, chief scientist for the cruise from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “We hope to collect photos, tissue and fecal samples, as well as sound recordings of sighted whales.”

Collecting basic data will help scientists identify individual whales. Knowing where whales go to feed and raise their young will help resource managers identify ways to better protect important whale habitats and the whales.

Most existing data is from the Bering Sea, but the research voyage aims to get more information on how the whales use the Gulf of Alaska, where there have only been a handful of sightings in recent years.

The biggest challenge will be finding them, so the scientists will deploy acousting devices to try and listen for their vocalizations, including a distinctive “gunshot” call.

If they are able to find some of the whales, they’ll try to get photos of their heads, which have growths that will enable the scientists to identify individuals and compare them with a catalog of existing whales. If the whale is known, new sightings can help establish its movements and range.

Scientists also will try to collect tissue samples so they can learn more about whale genetics and body condition or health. If they are lucky to get close enough, scientists might be able to attach satellite tags to individuals to monitor their movements over time.

To ensure they look in the right places, researchers are centering their work in areas where right whales were seen during past surveys and in areas deemed Gulf of Alaska critical habitat. They also will focus on a site where large numbers of whales were taken in historic commercial whaling in the Gulf of Alaska.

“In 2005, we located a juvenile right whale off Kodiak. This gives us some hope about the future of the population,” said Rone. “But we remain concerned about human impacts on this small population. For example, how will changes in the Arctic due to climate change, which could open up the Northwest Passage as a shipping route, impact right whales? It is imperative that we fill the critical gaps in knowledge if we are to save the North Pacific right whale!”

According to Rone, they also hope to spot a few fin and blue whales and collect more information on them as well.

To keep up on the latest from this important research cruise and other NOAA Fisheries field research, please check out Dispatches from the Field Summer 2015, on the Alaska Fisheries Science Center website.

To read more about other work being done by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center onboard the Reuben Lasker this summer click here.

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