Right whales remain in New England waters, with recent sightings in unprotected areas

Aquarium aerial surveys spot sei and right whales feeding south of Cape Cod

Right whale “Magic” (Catalog #1243) surfacing while feeding in the shipping lanes south of Cape Cod.
Right whale “Magic” (Catalog #1243) surfacing while feeding in the shipping lanes south of Cape Cod. CREDIT: New England Aquarium, taken under NMFS permit #25739

BOSTON, MASS. (June 5, 2024) – North Atlantic right whales are lingering in New England waters this spring, with recent sightings of the critically endangered animals in unprotected areas including the shipping lanes south of Cape Cod.


Scientists from the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life were flying an aerial survey on June 1 when they sighted two right whales 40 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Aerial survey observers had previously spotted three right whales feeding in and near the shipping lanes south of the islands on May 9, one of which was “Magic” (Catalog #1243), a 42-year-old female who has given birth to seven calves. During that same aerial survey flight, the Aquarium observers sighted 25 sei whales feeding in the shipping lanes. Sei whales are an endangered species primarily seen in New England waters in the spring when they feed on zooplankton, such as copepods, in similar areas as right whales. The sightings came just days after a cruise ship arrived in New York Harbor with a dead sei whale on its bow.

Vessel strikes pose a threat to sei whales and are one of the leading causes of serious injury and death for North Atlantic right whales. There are no mandatory vessel speed zones in the area where the whales were seen, and the right whales were not close enough together to trigger a dynamic management area or voluntary speed reduction zone, which warns mariners to slow down to 10 knots or less to prevent collisions with whales. Other recent sightings of right whales have triggered dynamic management areas in the waters near the shelf break off Virginia and New Jersey, including the 20th right whale mother-calf pair of the season seen for the first time.

Many of these critically endangered whales have been on the move in recent weeks as they travel hundreds of miles to their primary summer feeding grounds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. However, a large portion of the population is not accounted for in Canadian waters during the summer, and it’s not entirely known where these other whales go.

“While right whales may have left Cape Cod Bay, these sightings serve as an important reminder that not all right whales migrate north in the summertime,” said Katherine McKenna, an assistant research scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center who was aboard the aerial survey flight. “In fact, the three feeding right whales we spotted in May have never been documented in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where about 40 percent of the species goes to feed each summer.”

Seasonal protections for right whales off Massachusetts were lifted in May, leaving remaining animals more vulnerable to boats and ship traffic. To reduce the risk of vessel strikes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed modifications to the existing vessel speed rule, which include changes to seasonal speed zones. Under the revised rule, which is currently under interagency regulatory review, mandatory speed restrictions would be in place in the shipping lanes through May 30, reducing the risk of a vessel strike for all whale species. A scientific paper published this year by scientists at the Aquarium and other institutions found that these speed restrictions would reduce the risk of a lethal vessel strike for right, humpback, fin, and sei whales. The proposed rule was published nearly two years ago but has stalled in various governmental reviews.

The winter/spring season marks the peak time of year for right whale sightings in southern New England waters. The Aquarium’s aerial survey team has flown 40 surveys since December and documented 74 individual North Atlantic right whales, which have an estimated population of less than 360.

For more than a decade, the New England Aquarium has conducted aerial surveys over the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, collecting data on all marine animals with a focus on protected species of whales and sea turtles. The flights help monitor changes in animal populations, identify various species, and recognize trends using standardized data that has been collected over many years. Determining where right whales occur and how they are using habitats provides crucial information that can be used to better protect the critically endangered species.


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