More whales off the New England coast are being hit by boats than previously thought. Researchers focusing on the North Atlantic humpback whale population found that almost 15 percent of whales had injuries or scars consistent with boat strikes. Alex Hill, the lead author of the paper, believes that this estimate is an underestimate and most likely does not include the whales who die from the ship strikes. The study findings were published recently in the journal Marine Mammal Science.
The Gulf of Maine is a large gulf in the Atlantic Ocean on the northeastern coast of North America. Cape Cod, the Bay of Fundy sit in the Gulf of Maine. It edges the eastern part of Massachusetts in the south all the way to the southern tip of Nova Scotia in the northeast. The coastline of the Gulf of Maine is rocky and scenic and filled with much wildlife.
The whales were found in the southern part of the Gulf of Maine, off Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Boat strikes are a “significant risk” to whales and boaters, Hill said to Seacoastonline. Hill works as a scientist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a conservation group in Plymouth, MA. Hill believes that “long-term studies” concerning outreach programs to boaters might be helpful.
Previous studies have debated whether or not modifying shipping lanes can help “reduce” the incidences of whales being struck by boats. One study was confident that it could help while another said the opposite. Between 1978 and 2011, 25 of the 108 reported whale collisions ended the whale’s life in Alaska.
For the study in the Gulf of Maine, the researchers studied more than 200,000 photographs of over 600 humpback whales over nine years, evaluating the whales for “injuries and trauma,” Seacoastonline said. The conservation group recommends that marine managers need to come up with a strategy that vessels could use to transit near whales that would help to minimize collisions. Dave Wiley said the research study could help inform regulations of federal managers. Wiley is a research coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and was not involved in Hill’s study.
Others remain wary of the study findings. Scott Kraus, the chief scientist for marine mammals at the New England Aquarium, said the researchers could be interpreting scars and other marks on humpback whales. Kraus, however, said the “findings are still valid.” Hill and the other authors wrote in Marine Mammal Science that there are “no regulations or guidelines specifically devised to reduce the likelihood of collisions” with the whales.
By Cheryl Werber