Study illustrates need to adjust protective measures for threatened and endangered whales

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New research finds that climate change is impacting how large whale species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, use habitats in the warming Gulf of Maine, showing that use of Cape Cod Bay by right whales has changed significantly over the past 20 years. years.

The study, led by the New England Aquarium and including researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the USGS Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, the Center for Coastal Studies, UCLA, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Canadian Whale Institute was published this month. in the review Biology of global change. The authors sought to better understand the impacts of ocean climate change on phenology, or the timing of recurring biological events such as flowering of plants each year. Using more than 20 years of data, scientists measured changes in whale habitat use in Cape Cod Bay, assessing peak use trends for right whales, humpback whales and North Atlantic fin whales. The study found that peak use of Cape Cod Bay shifted nearly three weeks later for right whales and humpback whales. Changes in the timing of whale habitat use were linked to the onset of spring, which changed due to climate change. The study suggested that highly migratory marine mammals can and do adapt the timing of their habitat use in response to climatic changes in their environment, with the results showing increased habitat use by right whales in the bay. from Cape Cod from February to May, with the greatest increases. in April and May.

“The time of year when we are most likely to see right and humpback whales in Cape Cod Bay has changed significantly, and right whales are using the habitat much more than 20 years ago,” said lead author Dr. Dan Pendleton, Research Scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

The research team collected data from aerial surveys conducted by the Center for Coastal Studies from 1998 to 2018 and analyzed environmental data such as sea surface temperatures and dates that mark the start of spring. every year. The team used a new statistical technique to study changes in whale habitat use over years and over years, providing insight into the long-term effects of climate change on the planet. habitat of whales.

Scientists conducted the study in the Gulf of Maine because it is one of the fastest warming regions of the ocean, making it a unique ecosystem to study phenological and biological responses to climate change, such as animal migrations, productivity peaks and reproduction. Sea surface and sea floor temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have been increasing at a rate three times faster than the global average in recent decades. Changing ocean circulation and temperature – including earlier spring, later fall, longer summer and shorter winter – have resulted in shifts in the food supply of whales across the world. Gulf of Maine.

“One of the biggest gaps in our understanding of how climate change alters the annual cycles of life in the oceans is for the largest migratory animals – whales,” said Michelle Staudinger, ecologist at the US Geological Survey, science coordinator at the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center and professor of environmental conservation at UMass Amherst. “Even though they are the largest mammals on the planet, we do not understand exactly where some whales go and when. This new research helps us understand how the seasonal migration of whales changes, which is essential for their protection. and their conservation in our region.”

Scientists have also speculated that right whales could use Cape Cod Bay for a longer period of time because climate change has reduced the amount of food available in other Gulf of Maine habitats. These changes may have turned the bay into something of a “waiting room” for right whales as richer prey resources develop in new habitats, such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

North Atlantic right whales are a critically endangered species with 336 living individuals. The whale population has declined over the past decade due to human activities, such as ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. The visit of large whales to Cape Cod Bay is of great concern as the area is heavily used by ship operators and fishermen. Vessel speed limits and fishing restrictions in Cape Cod Bay were designed to coincide with the historic peak of North Atlantic right whale habitat use. The research illustrates the continued need for government agencies to change protective measures for threatened and endangered whales as these animals adapt their feeding and migratory habits in response to climate change.

“Changes in when whales use their traditional habitats have important implications for the design of protected areas. This issue is particularly important as climate change continues to alter animal migrations,” Pendleton said.

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Material provided by University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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