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New York takes stock of its whales

NEW YORK >> If your knowledge of New York’s wildlife is limited to pigeons and squirrels, Howard Rosenbaum, the director of the Ocean Giants program at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, has some surprising news. “In less distance out to sea than the average New Yorker’s commute home,” he said, “there is likely a whale singing at this very moment.”

At least seven species have been sighted offshore. They include the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale, and one of the most endangered creatures on earth, the North Atlantic right whale, as well as humpback, fin, sei, mine and sperm whales. As to why so many whales are passing through New York’s waters — and which of them live in the metropolitan area year-round — even whale experts are at something of a loss.

To solve those mysteries, the aquarium’s parent organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, has partnered with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the biggest independent ocean research center in the United States, to conduct the largest-ever survey of New York’s whales.

The project began on a research vessel 22 miles off Fire Island in thick fog on the night of June 23 without so much as a splash as technicians gently eased a listening buoy into calm waters.

Kris Newhall, a senior engineer at EOM Offshore, a technological arm of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, watched as a mooring winch lowered a 2,500-pound anchor to the bottom of the sea. Floating on a tether a few feet above it was an acoustic listening device the size of a pineapple. It will monitor whale calls within the New York Bight, the wedge of continental shelf that lies between the South Shore of Long Island and the New Jersey coast. The array will be powered by a lithium battery within a bright orange buoy bobbing at the surface.

A team of researchers will identify whale species by their distinctive call patterns and will approximate their locations on continually updated digital maps. New Yorkers will be able to track the chatter of their cetacean neighbors in near real-time on a webpage devoted to the project. At 7:20 p.m. on July 4, the first whales were detected. The calls of one or possibly two fin whales were identified, based on the species’ signature low-frequency pulse, which was repeated in regular patterns every 15 seconds.

The researchers will also be conducting visual reconnaissance from boats and by aircraft. They will tag some individual whales for long-term tracking. And they plan to deploy a wave glider, which is a small submarine powered by wave energy and sunlight, to zigzag across thousands of square miles of ocean listening for whale activity.

Critically, scientists will be tracking how close whales venture to New York’s crowded shipping lanes, and they hope to send out alerts to mariners, through the Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, urging them to slow down when the animals are nearby.

Less is known about the impact of ship traffic on whales in New York than in the Boston area, where there has been a real-time underwater acoustic monitoring system in place since 2008. “New York needs to get up to speed now and collect the kind of baseline data that will help government and the shipping industry minimize human impacts on whales,” Rosenbaum, a marine biologist, said.

The fortunes of the New York region were once intimately linked to whales. Small-scale whaling on Long Island dates to the 1640s; the blubber of the right whale was used for lamp oil and to make soap and margarine.

Many species were brought to the brink of local extinction as a result of a whaling boom in the mid-19th century. As coastal whale populations crashed, Long Island whalers ventured farther afield — into the Arctic and to Hawaii — until ultimately the industry moved in the late 19th century to San Francisco.

Demand for whale oil plummeted with the development of kerosene. But the market for whale meat remained strong even into the 1960s. Whale populations were decimated by industrial-scale slaughter fueled by the use of exploding harpoons in the 20th century.

That all began to change after the International Whaling Commission banned hunting in 1986. Critically endangered species, like the North Atlantic right whale, began to see modest increases in population. Still, there are only an estimated 500 right whales in the North Atlantic today, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

All of New York’s whale species are listed as endangered, and human activity continues to have a lot to do with that status. Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation on Long Island, reports that 2015 was the worst year yet for whale mortality in the area. “Nine dead whales, mostly humpbacks, washed up on Long Island beaches,” she said, “almost double the number in our previous peak year of 1991.” Most of the carcasses had wounds consistent with ship strikes.

One unlucky humpback, Durham said, was found entangled in gillnetting, which is often deployed to catch squid and herring.

Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole and a director of the New York whale project, expressed hope that the information the study generates will be used to “designate areas where we don’t allow fishermen to set fixed gear.” Baumgartner also said he anticipated that shipping channels may need to be shifted to protect New York’s whales, based on the success of the Boston whale surveys, which have led regulators there to move shipping lanes to avoid places where the animals routinely feed.

The New York project will monitor ship noise to assess if it is having negative effects on whale behavior. The biggest human impact on whales in the region, however, is likely to come from climate change.

“Warming waters may already be responsible for a large increase in sightings of humpbacks in recent years near the entrance to New York Harbor,” said Paul L. Sieswerda, the founder of Gotham Whale, a nonprofit that offers whale-watching trips from Breezy Point, Queens. In 2012, he said, whale watchers spotted 25 whales; by 2014 the number had climbed to 107. Sieswerda said warming oceans had brought vast schools of menhaden — a favorite fish of humpbacks, which eat more than a Volkswagen Beetle’s weight of seafood every day — from their usual haunts off Chesapeake Bay north to the New York Bight.

Tom Paladino, the captain of the whale-watching vessel, likes to say that “New York is the new Cape Cod,” a longtime whale-watching destination. But Baumgartner cautioned that the jury was still out on the future for whales in New York.

“One of the real scientific imperatives,” he said, “is to get an observing system out there that can listen over years and hopefully decades, so that we can document the really important changes that climate change is bringing to our ocean — and to our whales.”

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