NOAA 99R103
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Stephanie Dorezas
1/27/99

FEDS ON THE TRAIL OF THE RIGHT WHALE
The public can follow the trail via the Internet

A research tagging program that gives biologists a rare opportunity to study the nation's most endangered large whale species -- the North Atlantic right whale – is being carried out by NOAA Fisheries in partnership with NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries and the New England Aquarium, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today.

The collaborative effort, headed by NOAA Fisheries and the New England Aquarium, is utilizing VHF- radio tags to observe and document right whale calving behavior 24 hours a day for six weeks in Georgia and Florida waters. The collected data will help scientists determine when calving right whales are most vulnerable to ship strikes and whether the whales detect and react to passing vessels. The information will contribute to larger efforts to reduce the likelihood of whales being hit by ships.

Only 300 or so North Atlantic right whales remain, and ship strikes account for half of their known deaths.

"This project may provide the agency with valuable information for making management decisions that will minimize interactions between ships and right whales," said Dr. Steven Swartz, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA Fisheries and a member of the research tagging crew. "Ultimately, this research may help to ensure the survival of these highly endangered animals."

"Right whales are as well protected in this area by the early warning aerial survey system as they can be in daylight, but our understanding of what right whales do at night is non-existent," said Scott Kraus, New England Aquarium research director and founder of its Right Whale Research Project. "This is the first attempt to learn how right whales behave when everyone usually stops looking. Hopefully what we learn will help develop protection measures for that part of the day when we can't see them."

The public can participate in the voyage electronically on the Internet by logging onto the research cruise Web page at www.rightwhale.noaa.gov. The Web page includes weekly mission logs and photographs of the ship's activities. Also included is historical and biological information about right whales, the technology used on the cruise, and profiles of the scientists aboard the ship.

"We are excited that the public can now join us via the Internet on our mission to study these amazing creatures," said Reed Bohne, manager of NOAA's Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary. "There is reason to believe that if mortalities due to human actions were reduced or eliminated, the chance for right whale recovery would be significantly improved."

The research team is coordinating its efforts with the southeast early warning system aerial surveys, which relay whale sightings to the tagging team on a daily basis and make location information available to passing ships. Timely reporting enables the team to more easily locate whales for tagging and helps ships avoid hitting whales. Also helping scout for whales is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which conducts aerial surveys along the Florida coast during the course of the cruise.

The tagging team will be using a vessel, provided by NOAA's Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, which is capable of staying offshore for several days at a stretch. Once researchers locate the whales in the calving grounds, the team will use newly developed tagging equipment to attach VHF-radio transmitters to the adult female whales. Researchers will approach whales at low speeds with little change in direction, to minimize any potential disturbance to the whales.

The team's goal is to follow the tagged whale from an unobtrusive distance, while documenting surfacing, diving, and breathing patterns. Radio and visual observations during the daytime will be compared with radio observations at night to identify any changes or trends in their behavior. During each tagging event, photographs will be obtained in order to match the animal to the national right whale catalog which is maintained by the New England Aquarium.

Several thousand right whales once existed in the North Atlantic Ocean. Years of commercial hunting at the turn of the century severely depleted the stocks. Whalers considered the animal the "right whale" to hunt because they were slow moving, migrated close to shore, and stayed afloat after being killed. Today, despite more than 60 years of protection, North Atlantic right whales have not fully recovered.

The North Atlantic right whale is a robust, medium-sized baleen whale. Adults are 45 to 55 feet long. Distinctive features include: no dorsal fin, a large head, narrow upper jaw, and a strongly bowed lower jaw. Age at sexual maturity is five to nine years, with females normally giving birth to one calf every three to six years. Calving occurs during the winter months along the southeast coast of the United States. Calves nurse for at least nine months.

The northern right whale was listed as endangered throughout its range on June 2, 1970, under the Endangered Species Act of 1969 and receives protection under both this federal law and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.