Tags Posts tagged with "Atlantic Marine Conservation Society"

Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

A stranded humpback whale. Photo courtesy the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

Since 2016, various agencies along the Eastern Seaboard have been investigating unusual mortality events among whales, including humpback, minke and North Atlantic right whales.

In recent months, a growing chorus of politicians, pundits and some environmental groups have suggested that efforts to build wind farms in the water and, specifically, to use sonar to develop a contour of the ocean floor, may be confusing whales, injuring their ears or causing these marine mammals to lose their way.

Research groups such as the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society have raced to the scenes of these beachings, hoping to gather enough information to learn about the lives of these whales and conduct necropsies to determine a cause of death. [See story, “Humpback whale deaths increase along Eastern Seaboard,” TBR News Media website, Feb. 11.]

For many of these whales, however, the decaying condition of the carcass makes it difficult to draw a conclusive explanation. Additionally, some whales that weigh as much as 30,000 pounds have washed up in remote and protected places, making it difficult to analyze and remove them.

“We don’t have any evidence to suggest” a connection between wind farms and whale deaths.

— Robert DiGiovanni Jr.

Robert DiGiovanni Jr., chief scientist at AMCS has responded to over 4,600 strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles and has tagged over 120 animals, according to the society’s website. Currently, he is serving as the principal investigator on aerial surveys in the mid-Atlantic region.

Pointing to data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, DiGiovanni suggested that many of the whale strandings relate to vessel strikes.

According to NOAA data, 181 humpback whale mortalities occurred between 2016 and early February of this year. Researchers were able to conduct necropsies on about half of those whales. Of those examined, about 40 percent had evidence of a ship strike or entanglement.

“We don’t have any evidence to suggest” a connection between wind farms and whale deaths, DiGiovanni said. “What we’re seeing is what we’ve been previously seeing.”

He urged a close examination of all the changes and factors that could affect the location and health of whales, “not just one source.”

The chief scientist advocates consistent and ongoing investment in research on a larger scale, which could aid in responding to ongoing concerns about whale mortality events.

Understanding where whales are located is critical to protecting them.

DiGiovanni pointed to street signs around schools and neighborhoods that urge drivers to slow down because there might be children running into the street or playing on lawns.

Similarly, research about the location and movement of marine mammals can enable policies that protect them while they’re around the shores of Long Island and, more broadly, the Eastern Seaboard.

Researchers need to get a “better understanding of where these animals are and how that changes from day to day, week to week and month to month,” DiGiovanni said.

In aerial surveys a few years ago in the first week of February, he saw one or two whales. Two weeks later, he saw 13 right whales.

“We need to get a better understanding of those changes to help manage that,” the chief scientist said.

Against the backdrop of ongoing unusual mortality events, DiGiovanni noted that whale deaths occurred consistently before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw a difference in what was going on in the world, but we still had large whale occurrences,” he said. “Pulling all these pieces together is really important.”

The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society is working to develop incident command systems for marine mammal strandings with towns, fire departments, police and other authorities.

When DiGiovanni gets a call about a stranded whale, he can reach out to local partners, particularly in areas where these events have occurred in the past. Such rapid responses can ensure the safety of the crew and any bystanders on-site and can help bring needed equipment.

“What we do is very specialized,” DiGiovanni said. “Getting people to understand that and getting what’s needed is usually the first challenge.” 

Members of the conservation society team sometimes work 12 or 14 days straight without a break, depending on the complexity of a stranding and the number of whales washing up on beaches.

“The people doing this work are extremely dedicated to what they’re trying to answer” about the life and death of marine mammals, he added. Some of them drive six hours to a site to bring their expertise to bear.

“The discovery part is why we do this — to answer questions that would otherwise go unnoticed,” DiGiovanni said.

Video by Bill Doherty

By Donna Deedy

While boating alone just outside of Port Jefferson Harbor over the Labor Day holiday, South Setauket resident Bill Doherty had what he called a once-in-a-lifetime thrill. First, a big splash caught his eye. Then, another. 

Humpbacks, above, devour sea life during a recent whale watching expedition. Researchers attribute more whale sightings to a thriving menhaden or bunker fish population. Photo by Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

“I kept my eye on the water thinking it could be a boat accident or something,” he said. “I undid the anchor to get a little closer — but not too close — and realized it was a whale.”

For 15 to 20 minutes, Doherty watched in amazement as the whale put on a show spouting and breaching in the water about a mile off Old Field Point. He recorded it on a cellphone video just so he could prove to his friends this was no joke.

A big yacht and another passing boat, he said, cut their engines nearby so the passengers could enjoy the spectacle. 

Whale sightings, as unlikely as it might seem, are becoming more regular events in the New York area, including the Long Island Sound. 

Barrett Christie is director of animal husbandry at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn. His team has been tracking whale activity in the Sound since the museum opened in 1988. 

Almost every year since 2009, Christie said, more and more yachters and fishermen are seeing marine mammals in local waters.

Since 2015 whale counts, predominantly humpbacks but also minke whales, have been ramping up. The aquarium’s annual whale counts range from no sightings at all, to one per year, up to as many as a half dozen or more.

The aquarium’s observations, he noted, are consistent with the findings of other researchers. A Staten Island-based research organization Gotham Whale, for instance, documented in 2011 three whales and five sightings. Recently, the number was up to more than 260. The whale population has become so bountiful around the mouth of New York Harbor, Gotham Whale now coordinates research expeditions with the public in conjunction with five commercial whale watching vessels.

Healthier ecosystems

Scientists praise the Clean Water Act for improving water quality to protect marine habitats. The landmark environmental law, passed in 1972, regulates pollutants from agriculture, industry and wastewater to prevent or limit discharges into waterways.

“It’s taken fish populations more than 30 and up to 50 years to rebound,” Christie said. “We’re seeing not only more whales, but also more Atlantic white-sided dolphin, more seals, more sharks and further down the food chain more sand eels and herring.” 

After a long history of decline, Christie explained that forage fish such as menhaden or bunker and alewife, both in the herring family, have returned to spawn in the many freshwater tributaries that flow into the Sound. 

“The turnaround is miraculous,” Christie said.

Maxine Montello is a wildlife ecologist and the rescue program director at the New York Marine Rescue Center. She teaches a marine mammal and sea turtle course at Stony Brook University. 

After viewing Doherty’s cellphone video, she quickly identified that whale as a humpback. It’s huge pectoral fins, visible as the creature leaped out of the sea, made it easy to distinguish. 

Humpbacks, she said, are baleen whales — they have no teeth. To capture its prey, it swallows and strains seawater through the long and narrow strips of fingernail-like material called baleen that grows out of its jaw. Through this feeding process, it consumes krill, plankton and small fish, such as menhaden.

A flourishing menhaden population in the food chain, researchers are noticing, attracts whales.

In fact, researchers from the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, when conducting aerial surveys, track whales by following menhaden movement. 

Some 15 years ago, they saw few clusters or bait balls of menhaden along Long Island’s southern coastline. Today, Rob DiGiovanni, the society’s chief scientist, said a continuous stream of bunker stretches from Montauk to the New York Bight. Consequently, whales are more abundant there and traveling closer to shore and staying in the area longer. 

Montello and DiGiovanni also praise the Clean Water Act for improving marine habitats. But, with humpbacks near extinction in 1972, another bold act of Congress that year also deserves credit for reviving the whale population. 

“I would say that the Marine Mammal Protection Act has really changed the game for marine mammals,” Montello said. “This act has provided great protection and awareness of these charismatic species.”

This law prohibits hunting, capturing, collecting, harassing or killing marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals and manatees.

Whaling once was one of Long Island’s most important commercial industries, according to the Cold Spring Harbor-based Whaling Museum with Cold Spring Harbor, Greenport and Sag Harbor serving as the Island’s three whaling ports. 

Today, people are armed with cameras and spreadsheets instead of harpoons, and more interested in spearheading marine restoration projects that aim to protect rather than slaughter these giant marine mammals. 

If you are lucky enough to spot a whale, scientists want to hear from you with photos. Like human fingerprints, whales bear distinct characteristics on their tails. Gotham Whale has an extensive and growing archive of these tail shots. Through such photos, researchers there have been able to identify and track the activities of 269 individual whales, according to Paul Sieswerda, Gotham Whale’s executive director. 

“It would be interesting to find out if whales — our New York City whales — are the same ones traveling through the Sound,” he said. 

To report whale sightings, contact: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society at www.amseas.org/reportsighting; Gotham Whale at www.gothamwhale.org/citizen-science; The Maritime Aquarium, Norwalk at 203-852-0700.

Kimberly Durham of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society takes measurements of the deceased sea turtle July 24.

 A nearly 5 foot long rare leatherback sea turtle was found dead on Callhan’s Beach in Fort Salonga July 24.

The male sea turtle had multiple lacerations on its on top shell that were consistent with a vessel strike, according to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, an organization that promotes marine conservation. The animal otherwise appeared to be in good body condition.

AMCS has responded to 13 sea turtles so far this year, with this being the first leatherback. Of these 13 responses, 10 have evidence of human interaction – nine were deceased with evidence of vessel strike and one had been caught on a fishing hook, but freed itself.

 AMCS is encouraging the public to be aware that we share our waters with these animals and to give them at least 150 feet of space if sighted swimming. Strandings can be reported to the NYS Stranding Hotline at 631.369.9829.


      The Long Island Explorium, 101 East Broadway, Port Jefferson is pleased to partner with the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society to present an insightful and invaluable Cold Stun Sea Turtle Talk and Workshop on how to save sea turtles that wash up on our shores on Tuesday, Dec. 4 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. 
     As summer ends and the cooler fall weather finds its way to New York, the four different species of sea turtles that utilize our waters migrate south to warmer waters. Atlantic green, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles that fail to move out of our waters before the first cold snap will become hypothermic, stop swimming and eating and may wash up on our shores. When we act quickly there is a chance we can save them.
     Co-hosted by thePort Jefferson Village Center and the Port Jefferson Library, this workshop will provide participants with knowledge and skills needed to prevent these sea turtles from succumbing to the effects of the cold winter.
     To RSVP for the workshop, email Hannah at [email protected]. For more information, call 631-331-3277.

By Anthony Petriello

A decomposing beaked whale, not
typically seen near shore, found in Miller Place July 19 caused a stir on social media. Photo from Andrea Costanzo

Pictures of a carcass of a mysterious creature that washed up on the beach in Miller Place discovered by a resident July 19 have been circulating around the local community on Facebook. The photos were provided to TBR News Media by Facebook user Andrea Costanzo, who said they were taken by her father. According to the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the creature has been identified as a beaked whale, a type of whale typically found in the deep ocean, although the exact species of beaked whale is yet to be determined. When found, the whale was in advanced stages of decomposition, making it difficult to determine what exactly it was, conjuring thoughts of the Loch Ness monster or other mythical creatures on social media.   

The SPCA speculated that the whale had gotten sick and swam into the Long Island Sound seeking shelter. The whale was taken off the beach and transported to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in Hampton Bays. According to AMCS Executive Director and Chief Scientist Rob DiGiovanni, very little has been determined as to why the whale became sick or how exactly it ended up on the Miller Place beach due to the advanced stage of decomposition of the animal, making it difficult to ascertain many facts. It was determined through necropsy, however, that the whale did not die due to the ingestion of marine debris such as plastic or metal.

Beaked whales dive for an hour, sometimes two, and surface for just a few minutes to take a series of rapid breaths before diving again, according to New Scientist, an online science and technology magazine. They routinely reach 3,200 feet beneath the surface, while some have been measured as far as 10,000 feet down.