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The Marine Discovery Center hosts a lecture on North Atlantic Right Whales early each year to help citizens identify the large mammals sometimes spotted just offshore.
The presentation also encourages individuals to engage in a volunteer contact system designed to alert officials whenever these endangered animals are in the area.
Sadly, the challenges increased for the right whale in 2017, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported an “unusual mortality event (UME).” The UME detailed that 17 right whales were found dead off the coasts of New England and Canada last year, plunging the current global population of these whales to 450 animals.
Further, officials from NOAA warned in early December that the species of whale — which can weigh up to 150,000 pounds and grow as long as 48 feet (nearly 15 meters) — could be extinct within 20 years if critical action is not taken to protect them. Scientists estimate there currently are only 100 breeding females in existence.
One report noted that warmer water temperatures in Halifax, Canada, had lured some of the whales into atypical foraging areas that were also shipping channels. Of the 17 whales that were found dead in 2017, six were reportedly killed by blunt-force trauma – likely from collisions with vessels, said NOAA.
NOAA has already begun work with commercial fisheries from Canada and the United States, requesting improved communication to help avoid whale/ship encounters, as well as to help minimize entanglements. Five right whales were freed from fishing nets in 2017, with two dying following entanglement.
Precautionary measures with North American fisheries intensified in 2009. According to a NOAA report, fisheries were required to sink 27,000 miles of floating lines deep into oceanic waters, and more than 3,000 more miles of fishing line was removed from North American waters in 2014.
And while NOAA, along with various other national and state agencies, work to improve management of commercial fishing practices and methods to make waters safer for right whales, the addition of volunteer spotters has also benefitted the effort. Volunteer spotters living in coastal regions help report whale sightings to officials, who can alter shipping and commercial fishing routes, thereby preventing whale strikes.
Julie Albert, manager of the Marine Resources Council’s North Atlantic Right Whale Monitoring Program, currently leads more than 800 volunteers along the east coast of Florida. Albert will once again lead the discussion on right whales during MDC’s free monthly lecture on Thursday, Jan. 18.
The free lecture will begin at 6 p.m., at MDC, located at 520 Barracuda Boulevard in New Smyrna Beach.
The public is invited to come learn more about these endangered creatures, as well as what can be done by local citizens to help protect them when they show up off our shorelines this winter.