Acoustic monitoring by Cornell scientists shows rare and endangered right whales swimming off New York harbor, where federal officials have recently lowered ship speed limits to help protect the slow-moving mammals during migrations from Florida to New England and Canada.
Monitors south of Long Island for a year have recorded the whales' calls, but they are not being replaced, the project having lost state funding in the current budget crunch.
“They're running a gauntlet twice a year for months at a time,'' said Chris Clark, director of the Bioacoustis Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “That's the train wreck, and nobody's paid any attention to New York very much at all. There are a lot of efforts going on in New England, and a lot of efforts in Georgia and Florida.''
Biologists estimate 300 to 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, having been fished to commercial extinction a century ago and vulnerable now to ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.
The seven buoys and acoustic monitors extended perpendicular from Long Island, from about eight miles offshore to 90 miles.
“We just brought them in last week,'' Clark said. “Unfortunately, DEC, their budget's been cut back. We ran out of money. We had to stop the process for right now.''
New York's Department of Environmental Conservation has supported the project, which began in spring 2008. In September, James Gilmore, chief of the agency's Bureau of Marine Resources, said the monitoring data will help better understand New York's role in the life of right whales and enable officials to make more informed conservation decisions.
Queries to the DEC about funding were referred to the Paterson administration's Budget Division. Spokesman Jeffrey Gordon said he couldn't immediately comment on the status except to say projects are continually being evaluated “in light of competing priorities in the current challenging fiscal environment.''
Gov. David Paterson has ordered spending cuts from state agencies as New York faces an estimated $14 billion budget deficit in the fiscal year that starts April 1.
Right whales can reach 50 feet and 70 tons, are often found in coastal waters, and with about 40 percent blubber tend to stay near the surface, which made them easy prey for whalers.
The federal regulation that took effect Dec. 9 requires ships 65 feet or longer to slow to 10 knots in designated waters with high shipping volume from the Southeast to New England on the migration routes.
They include a semicircular area with a radius of 20 nautical miles outside the entrance to New York Harbor, effective from Nov. 1 through April 30 for the next five years, said Shannon Bettridge, fishery biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service. The whales generally migrate south in November and December to calving grounds, and return north in February through April to feeding grounds.
Barb Zoodsman, biologist and coordinator of the federal right whale recovery program in the Southeast, said the other big threat is from fishing gear, with five right whales found entangled in the past year, usually in fixed gear that's set out for hours or days, often with buoys attached by ropes to gill nets or to fishing traps for crabs or lobster. Organizations that are part of a network try to disentangle caught whales and recently pulled close to 1,000 feet of rope off one, she said.
“They're extremely vulnerable, particularly when they have their young with them,'' Zoodsman said. Federal regulations established in 1999 set some restrictions on fishing gear, with modifications to include weak links that whales can break.
Off New York, there are also busy shipping lanes east and west about 30 miles off Long Island, Clark said. Every Cornell monitor there detected right whales, from eight miles offshore to 90 miles out, he said.
“I've seen mothers and calves right in the breakers,'' Clark said. Another likely threat to the animals is noise pollution from shipping, making it difficult of them to communicate and find others, he said.
In the Pacific Ocean off South America, Australia and New Zealand, related right whales were also hunted nearly to extinction, but they have recovered from 400 to 500 animals to about 8,000, Clark said. “In the North Atlantic they just haven't recovered. They're just not making any headway.''