Endangered right whales feeding on Cape Cod Bay

Division of Marine Fisheries issues high risk advisory for mariners
Endangered right whales feeding at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal Wednesday morning. David G. Curran photo.

Humans aren't the only ones who enjoy the briny delicacies of Cape Cod Bay.  Endangered North Atlantic right whales are currently feeding off the shores of Cape Cod in the western part of the bay.  According to the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), the group of gathered whales is both large and stable. 

Approximately 60 whales have been seen surfacing and sub-surface feeding near the shipping lanes from Green Harbor to Sandwich. In an effort to protect the whales, DMF has issued a high risk advisory for mariners. With a total population of approximately 550, right whales are the most endangered large whale in the North Atlantic.

Due to the abundance of food (zooplankton) in the western part of the bay, the whales are expected to remain in the area for several days, according to DMF.

For the safety of whales and humans onboard vessels, a lookout should be posted and speeds should be reduced to 10 knots. Vessels 65 feet or longer are prohibited by federal law to exceed 10 knots, but whales are still at risk for being struck by smaller vessels. The number of vessels on the bay is also expected to increase with more recreational boaters and whale watch boats. State and federal law also prohibits boaters from approaching within 500 yards of a right whale. Both the United States Coast Guard and the Massachusetts Environmental Police are authorized to enforce this rule.

DMF monitors and studies whales through its Right Whale Conservation Program. The federally and state funded program is a joint effort between DMF, the Provincetown-based Center for Coastal Studies and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries). NOAA Fisheries issues alerts to mariners through the Northern Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (SAS). 

Advisories are available on the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Regional website here and are also broadcast over NOAA weather radio here. With data obtained from aerial surveys of Cape Cod Bay, right whale sightings are documented and searchable by date and area here.

The Center for Coastal Studies shares data from their aerial surveys on their Facebook page here.  During the aerial surveys, the plane flies a series of east-west tracklines about 1.5 nautical miles apart, according to the center's website. When a whale is spotted, the plane breaks from its course and circles the whale, recording its position, markings and whether or not it is entangled. The data collected is part of the center's growing population monitoring study. The whales spotted during surveys are reported to the SAS.

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