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Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, USA

Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine are one of the most well-studied humpback populations in the world and WDC has been helping protect whales in this vital feeding ground for more than 20 years.

We coordinate our own research projects as well as contribute our data to other long-running data sets, including both the Gulf of Maine and North Atlantic humpback whale catalogs.

Non-invasive photo identification research allows us to identify individuals and their families, monitor their health, track their migrations and estimate overall population size. Research on this population indicates that about 70% of calves return to the Gulf of Maine feeding area where their mothers first brought them, indicating that this is an important habitat for whales of all ages. We know that these whales migrate from the Gulf of Maine to their breeding grounds in the West Indies, facing multiple threats along the way.

As part of the West Indies breeding stock, Gulf of Maine humpback whales were removed from the US Endangered Species List in 2016, but continue to be protected under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, impacts from humans continue to impede the recovery of this population of humpback whales. Many are killed or injured by vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear each year. They are disturbed by ocean noise on a daily basis. They have to catch their food while trying not to ingest dangerous marine debris that can block their digestive tract.

 

Conservation efforts

Between January 2016-August 2018, nearly 80 humpback whales died along the US east coast died as part of an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME). Declared by US authorities, the UME indicates that a higher than normal number of whales has been found dead and additional investigation into the cause is warranted. Of the whales necropsied (autopsied), about 50% showed signs of human interaction.

Our data collection programs aim to collect concrete information that can be used to inform managers about whale distribution and habitat use as well as the severity and sources of injuries in order to better protect their ocean homes from potential threats they face. Here are a few of our projects:

Data Collection and Intern Program

Each year we recruit 6-10 interns to carry out fieldwork through our partnerships with responsible Whale SENSE whale watching companies in Massachusetts. While onboard, they are not only collecting sightings and photo-identification data, but they are also educating passengers about whales and dolphins and what they can do to help protect these species. In the office, interns download, clean and code data into our sightings and photo-ID databases, which in turn supports our policy initiatives. Our interns get firsthand experience to launch their careers, and we are proud to report that approximately 75% of our former interns have stayed active in the field of marine conservation.

Mid-Atlantic research

We are investigating threats in areas of the mid-Atlantic US east coast where humpbacks have been documented feeding throughout the year, some perhaps staying to eat rather than migrating to the Caribbean breeding grounds in the winter months.  We are working with research partners and responsible whale watch companies in this region to develop a mid-Atlantic regional photo-ID catalog to better understand whale habitat use and residency times to more fully migrate threats.

Social Learning

Gulf of Maine humpback whales are the only humpback whales in the world known to feed using a method called “kick feeding”.  This behavior was culturally transmitted, that is, it was learned from a peer group and passed through social learning, not taught to them by their mothers.    We are analyzing video recordings of this behavior among individuals to determine who is coming up with new feeding techniques, whether a particular technique may be more effective, and who is learning and passing on the new behaviors to their friends.  These data will help us further document the presence of social learning and culture within the population

Vessel Strikes

Our research on small vessel impacts indicates at least 1 in 10 humpbacks in the southern Gulf of Maine will be struck by a vessel during their lifetime and these collisions are highly underreported. These findings support the need for the development of operational guidelines applicable to vessels of all sizes transiting in the vicinity of whales, not only those engaged in whale watching.

WDC will continue to use our data to inform federal and state agencies, provide public comments on proposed projects that have the potential to harm whales and their habitat, and collaborate with other research organizations to better protect this species.

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