A Boston Globe article last week reported exciting information about North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered large whale in the North Atlantic and one of the planet’s rarest animals, with an estimated 440 individuals left in the total population. Historically, right whales were targeted by whalers because of various characteristics that made them commercially attractive and easy to kill, and today they face continuing threats from entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with ships. While there are many mysteries surrounding this ocean giant, in recent years, scientists discovered that many right whales spend early winter (November to January) in Jordan Basin, which is approximately 60 miles south of Bar Harbor in the Gulf of Maine and is one of New England’s special ocean places.
Scientists were able to conduct further observations of right whale behavior in Jordan Basin this past winter, and they saw indications that the whales were conducting mating rituals. Additional evidence, such as visually observing mating behavior and measuring hormone levels, is necessary in order to draw any definitive conclusions about the whales mating, but scientists sound optimistic that these recent discoveries are helping to fill in the blanks of what we don’t know about right whale behavior.
These discoveries carry additional importance because they can be used to create measures to protect the threatened right whale. Since whales are often harmed in net entanglements or ship strikes, knowledge of where they congregate allows the creation of well-tailored regulations that define shipping routes outside of right whale hotspots and reduce vessel speeds in seasonal right whale waters (this was discussed in a Boston Globe editorial that ran earlier this week). This is a key example of how marine spatial planning can help protect threatened ocean species, such as the North Atlantic right whale, and preserve our ocean legacy.