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State urged to revive whale monitoring

Dr. Christopher Clark, Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bioacoustics

Dr. Christopher Clark, Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bioacoustics Research Program Director talks about data collected that outlines whale activity in New York waters. Two years ago underwater microphones captured the mating (May 4, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Scientists who used underwater microphones to detect a surprising variety of whales migrating through New York waters said Wednesday the state needs to revive research efforts aimed at monitoring and protecting whales here.

The studies were halted in 2009, soon after Cornell University researchers obtained the first recording of a blue whale -- the largest animal in the world -- in this area. The marine mammal was singing just 70 miles off the coast of Long Island.

The disruption in monitoring left whales vulnerable to ship strikes in New York waters and hampered coastwide efforts to collect information on whale movements and communication, researchers said.

"I find it absolutely irresponsible the way New York State has not dealt with its coastal habitat and its marine habitat," Chris Clark of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Bioacoustics Research Program said at a research presentation Wednesday in Manhattan. "This is a cornucopia of sound that we're discovering off New York."

Sound-recording buoys placed off Long Island and in New York Harbor in 2008 and 2009 captured songs from some of the biggest and rarest whale species in the Northeast.

Intended to track the migration of endangered North Atlantic right whales, the acoustic "net" also revealed the presence of fin whales, minke whales and other species.

Early data indicated that during some months of their migration, right whales were passing through shipping lanes instead of sticking closer to shore, as had been previously thought. Ship strikes are a major cause of mortality for right whales; scientists estimate there are only 300 to 400 left in the North Atlantic.

The monitoring program, a joint effort with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was halted in 2009 because of funding problems and the departure of the DEC staffer who had coordinated the research.

Clark called on New York and the public to fund additional research, like efforts in Boston Harbor, where a permanent network of real-time recording systems alerts large ships when whales are nearby.

Jim Gilmore, chief of the DEC's marine resources division, said the agency is trying to secure state and federal money for a new research contract to track whale movement.

"We're definitely trying to get that back in place," Gilmore said Wednesday. He said the new contract would probably look at a range of technologies to monitor whales -- among them, visual surveys conducted by plane -- and might not involve the use of underwater microphones like those deployed by Cornell researchers.

Acoustic monitoring provides a valuable supplement to aerial surveys that federal fisheries scientists conduct to count and track whale populations, said Sofie Van Parijs of NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.

"What we're finding with acoustics is whenever you listen, they're there more often than you think," Van Parijs said.

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