For much of April, the Division of Marine Fisheries has been keeping a close eye on "moderate to high densities" of North Atlantic right whales off the coast of Massachusetts and environmental authorities are reminding mariners to either go slow or find another route around areas where the endangered mammals have been spotted.
Aerial and acoustic surveillance conducted earlier this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies found a large number of right whales, likely feeding, in "Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank, state waters on the backside of Cape Cod, and the nearshore federal waters south of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket."
Through April 30, a 10-knot speed restriction is in place for small vessels in Cape Cod Bay and a corresponding federal speed limit is in place for vessels larger than 65 feet. DMF said its speed limit could be extended or rescinded depending on whether the whales remain in the area or move along.
"During the late winter and early-spring, right whales migrate into and aggregate in Cape Cod Bay where they feed on zooplankton. As we move into the spring, these whales begin to feed closer to the surface and become more susceptible to ship strikes," NOAA said. "Ship strikes are a significant source of mortality to these endangered whales. However, the lethality of ship strikes is greatly reduced when vessels are operating at less than 10-knots speed."
Right whales got their name, NOAA said, "from being the 'right' whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed." Nantucket and New Bedford thrived as whaling ports in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the expeditions that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution severely depleted whale populations and right whales "have never recovered to pre-whaling numbers," NOAA said.
Northern right whales have been listed as endangered since 1970 and there are estimated to be fewer than 400 remaining on Earth. Protection of the endangered marine mammals has factored into the introduction of the offshore wind industry in Massachusetts and the Northeast.