Humpback whales are dying all along the East Coast, though advocates say "smart" buoys, slower ship speeds and fishing gear that breaks apart might have saved them.
Ships and entanglements are two of the most clearly identified killers, scientists say.
“You’d be surprised at how many animals are out there with propeller scars,” said Arthur H. Kopelman, president, Coastal Research & Education Society of Long Island, a West Sayville nonprofit that conducts research and offers whale-watching.
Humpbacks and fin whales “come right up under the bow” of whale-watching ships, he says, luckily when the engines are in neutral, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requires.
Fin whales are the second largest after blue whales; humpbacks usually rank fifth, smaller than sperm whales and endangered right whales.
Named for the graceful way their backs arch when they dive, humpbacks increasingly are swimming closer to shore in New York Harbor and Long Island, chasing bait fish, including menhaden, now thriving because the sea is cleaner, experts say.
All oxygen-consumers need them. “Whales literally are helping you breathe and fight climate change,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director, North American Office of Whale and Dolphin Conservation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a research-educational nonprofit.
Floating phytoplankton, powered by photosynthesis are carbon dioxide sponges, releasing around half the planet’s oxygen. Whales, which can only excrete waste on the surface, provide the nitrogen, phosphorous and iron these tiny but vital algae need. “They are the base of the food web,” relied upon by countless marine life, she said. “Whales are literally nature’s gardener.”
Humpbacks' penchant for breaching — leaping almost all the way out of the water, perhaps to expel air, attract mates, or, advocates hypothesize, to enjoy themselves — partly explains their appeal.
“They are our target animal,” said Tom Bunting, a naturalist with Freeport’s Captain Lou Fleet whale-watching tours. “It’s really cool when they come out of the water; if they are just swimming … they just kind of look at you.”
This inquisitiveness is not always well-received. “I’ve seen humpback whales approach other species, to go check them out, to try to figure out what they are doing,” said Asmutis-Silvia.
One humpback, she said, jumped “into the middle of a pod of pilot whales, and it kept surfacing, and annoying the pilot whales.” She added: “We’ve seen them play with buckets, with marine debris; they play with seaweed.”
Yet these characteristics may imperil them, experts say, as large ships don't behave like whale-watching vessels that follow NOAA’s rules to stay 100 to 600 feet away. Nor do all recreational boaters or fishing guides, said Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, a Hampton Bays nonprofit. Studying how whales interact with vessels might be helpful, he said.
“A couple of months ago, a whale breached just offshore from us; as it did, a number of boats turned and raced towards it … they were potentially pushing the animal towards the shore, as opposed to thinking about how to make sure the animal had the most amount of space” to turn, he said. NOAA requires whale watchers to remain parallel — and never approach head-on.
Tankers, which take two miles to stop, also jeopardize humpbacks, lured into New York shipping channels by bait fish. And cargo volume is expected to keep rising.
Tankers “have no way of detecting them ahead of time,” said Robert Schoelkopf, executive director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a nonprofit in Brigantine, New Jersey. He added: “We see a lot of them, bringing cars from overseas, they actually have a dead whale on the bow. They don’t know they hit it, you’re talking about a ship the size of two football fields long, the whale is 30 to 40 feet … usually they don’t know they struck it until a pilot boat comes out to escort them.”
Humpbacks, which must gain a few tons to survive winter, are focused eaters. “It’s not going to avoid you; it’s zeroing in on food,” said Asmutis-Silvia.
The young, male humpback with the misshapen dorsal fin that washed ashore in Long Beach last week joined more than 100 that have suffered similar fates since 2016, NOAA said.
About a quarter of their deaths resulted from "human interaction,” NOAA says, hit by vessels or trapped in ropes and nets. The latest casualty probably died about a week or two ago, said DiGiovanni, whose team performed the necropsy.
When it comes to safeguarding right whales, Massachusetts leads, with at least one lobstermen association trying out ropes from which whales can break free.
And more than a decade ago, 10 smart buoys, which listen for right whale calls — and alert shippers in real time — were placed five miles part in shipping lanes, from Cape Cod to Boston Harbor.
NOAA obliges ships to slow to 10 knots (11.5 mph) or less when right whales are near, which shields other whales in the area, said Mendy Garron, a Gloucester, Massachusetts-based NOAA marine mammal response program coordinator. That rule should apply to other whales, advocates say.
DiGiovanni likened the need for slower speeds to driving near a school — or a mall parking lot at Christmas.
“The only thing we see that is effective is if ships are traveling 10 knots are less, there is a reduced risk of collisions occurring,” Asmutis-Silvia said. A NOAA spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
NOAA is exploring an Australian method to make lobster fishing safer by coiling the lines at the bottom, instead of the vertical lines used in this country that ensnarl sea creatures, including whales.
Drones, however, are not likely to help as whales spend so much time underwater, Asmutis-Silvia said.
Though whales rely more on hearing than sight, experiments to scare them off with noise backfired. “Most of the sounds they tried, the whales ignored,” she said. “Finally, they found one noise, a weird, different set of alarm frequencies. They found that the whales almost immediately came to the surface, and that actually put them at greater risk.”
Some whale facts
•Humpbacks are known for their complicated songs, audible over 20 miles. Adults, about as long as a school bus, can weigh 40 tons. Often identified by spots on their flukes, they can live eight or nine decades.
•The Marine Mammal Act protects humpbacks. An “unusual mortality event,” prompting an immediate response as a significant number died, was declared in 2016 — the same year they were taken off the endangered list. A total of 103 have died along the East Coast from 2016 to 2019. New York’s total of 20 is the most.
•Ship strikes and fishing gear killed about a quarter of them. Right whale statistics reveal the dangers of lost nets and vertical lines used for lobster fishing: scarring data shows nearly 85% of right whales got entangled at least once and 59% at least twice.
•Right whales are classified as endangered; only about 400 are left. They have more protection: ships must notify the U.S. Coast Guard if they see one; keep a distance of at least four football fields (400 yards), and slow to 10 knots (11.5 mph) or less. For humpbacks, the distance is 100 to 600 feet.
•There were about 896 Gulf of Maine humpbacks in the Caribbean’s West Indies in winter 2015. All of the North Atlantic has an estimated 10,400 to 10,752 humpbacks.
•Anyone who spots any whale in distress or one that has died should call the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 866-755-6622, the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-433-8299 or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Never draw near or touch injured or dead marine mammals. The whale alert app is: stellwagen.noaa.gov/protect/whalealert.html
Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.