US federal researchers who study critically endangered North Pacific right whales sometimes go years without finding their subjects. Over the weekend, they got lucky.
A research vessel in the Bering Sea photographed two of the animals on Sunday and obtained a biopsy sample from one of them, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.
Jessica Crance, a NOAA fisheries research biologist, was on board the Yushin Maru 2 when the whales were spotted. The ship is part of the Whales and Ecosystems of the Pacific Ocean Research Program, a collaborative effort led by the International Whaling Commission. Using an acoustic recorder and between the sounds of killer whales and walruses, Crance picked up faint calls from a right whale east of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
The sounds were coming from about 16 to 51 kilometers away and the ship headed west, she said in a blog post. After four and a half hours, despite the presence of minke and humpback whales, and only a few calls from right whales, the few animals were spotted.
The two right whales are part of the eastern stock of only 30 to 50 whales, said Phillip Clapham, cetacean program manager at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
A French whaler recorded the first kill in 1835 and said he saw “millions” more. This claim was exaggerated
but it drew hundreds of other whalers to the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, Clapham said.
In 14 years, Clapham said, overexploitation of slow-moving, floating animals has sent many whalers across the Bering Strait to hunt bowhead whales instead.
A modest return of right whales in the 20th century was derailed when Soviet whalers in the 1960s ignored extremely low numbers and illegally killed eastern right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, Clapham said.
The right whale sampled on Sunday had been seen eight times previously, Clapham said. The last time was ten years ago.
A biopsy sample, he said, can positively identify the animal, reveal its gender, indicate if it is pregnant and reveal information about diet and reproductive hormones.
The study of North Pacific right whales is complicated by the cost of reaching their habitat in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
Critical data remains unknown, including their winter habits and many of their favorite summer feeding areas for copepods, a tiny plankton crustacean.
“We don’t know which habitats continue to be important to the species,” Clapham said.
The biggest threats to animals are entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships, Clapham said.