As peak humpback whale season gets underway, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s annual Ocean Count will still take place Jan. 26 as scheduled despite the partial federal government shutdown, thanks to its national nonprofit partner, which is stepping in.
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the national nonprofit partner for the National Marine Sanctuary System, will coordinate Ocean Count during the peak months of January, February and March.
“Through the support of dedicated volunteers, Ocean Count has provided more than 20 years of data that supplements scientific research and helps monitor humpback whales during their annual migration to the Hawaiian Islands,” said Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, in a news release. “Fewer humpback whales are being observed in the main Hawaiian islands in recent years, and we don’t know why. Unfortunately, critical sanctuary research that could help us understand these changes is on hold indefinitely due to the government shutdown.”
Ocean Count, a community citizen science project held on the last Saturday of January, February and March, provides a snapshot of humpback whales sightings from the shoreline and promotes public awareness about the marine mammals, which were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2016.
More than 300 volunteers are expected to participate in the Ocean Count in January, tallying humpback whale sightings and documenting the animals’ surface behavior. On Maui, the Great Whale Count takes place on the same dates, led by the Pacific Whale Foundation, a nonprofit which conducts tours as well as research on humpback whales.
Over the past three seasons, sightings of North Pacific humpback whales in the Hawaiian Islands have been on the decline, and scientists are still uncertain about the reasons why. Some believe the whales’ feeding grounds in Alaska have been impacted by warmer ocean temperatures, while others wonder whether they might be venturing to other places than where they have usually been sighted.