Climate Crisis and the Environment

New Study Aids Scientists In Protecting Bowhead Whales

Bowhead whale in icy waters in Greenland
Ryan Keane

Conducted by scientists at the New England Aquarium’s Cabot Center for Ocean Life in the US, a new study has uncovered ways to potentially protect bowhead whales from harmful human interference.

The team of four aquarium scientists deployed a dataset to model a suitable habitat for bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. Such distribution models consider factors like temperature and water chemistry. The reason this particular model is so effective is that it considers the presence of zooplankton, too – a common source of food for bowhead whales. Calculations estimate where the plankton will go and where, in turn, the whales will flock.

This information is so important to conservationists because it means they’re now better equipped at identifying where to place protections. New fishing guidelines and shipping routes could be implemented in those areas that are anticipating whales, so as to stop more humans from affecting the animals’ well-being.

Some worry that if action is not swiftly taken, the situation in Greenland’s waters may extend elsewhere

Generally, bowhead whales aren’t considered threatened; their IUCN category is Least Concern. But in the waters of West Greenland, they’re Near Threatened and in the waters of East Greenland, they’re Vulnerable.

As the effects of climate change continue to grow and more marine life collides with boats and fishing nets, some worry that if action is not swiftly taken, the situation in Greenland’s waters may extend elsewhere.

It’s why the results of this Cabot Center-led study have the scientists feeling optimistic. Dan Pendleton, one of the scientists involved in the investigation, says he hopes to use the prey-centric model to help track and protect right whales, too – a critically endangered species. Right whales were almost hunted to extinction until they received international protection from whaling in 1935. They’re a species made up of less than 400 individuals that migrate along the east coast of the US and Canada, but Pendleton has noticed profound shifts in their travel patterns.

Warm water that’s been coming into the Gulf of Maine has affected the supply of their primary prey,” he explains. “They’re just not in the places that they’ve been in for the last 40 years”.

Perhaps, with a similar amount of monitoring, other whale species could benefit. But, for now, scientists are offering information on how to improve fishing and boating habits to protect bowheads and maybe right whales. It’s just hoped that people in positions of power will take it on board.

Ryan Keane

Featured image by Anne-Line Brink from Flickr. Image licence found here. No changes made to this image.

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