Climate change

More Endangered Right Whales Are Leaving New England for Canada

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet

NBC Universal, Inc.

Local researchers are studying why North Atlantic right whales are migrating out of our area into more northern waters in Canada.

Some believe rapidly warming waters in the Gulf of Maine could be playing a role, but they’re just not sure how.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet.

Researchers from the New England Aquarium are studying these majestic creatures and they think some of the answers might lie in their poop.

Dr. Elizabeth Burgess is a research scientist with the aquarium that studies hormone changes in right whales. Unfortunately, the easiest way to collect hormones is through their feces.

"So nutritional stress is of really great concern for this species, as is the reproductive viability as well. So all of these things we can, we're using hormones to better understand what's happening," said Burgess.

For decades, the right whales would come to feed every summer from Cape Cod bay all the way up to the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.

Over the last 10 years, scientists that study the whales have found they’ve moved north of Nova Scotia into the Gulf of St Lawrence, one of the busiest shipping corridors in North America.

Dr. Dan Pendleton, a research scientist that’s been studying the migration of the right whales said that caught many by surprise.

“Seventeen whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence a few years ago because they unexpectedly showed up in the middle of a fishing season. And they were struck by vessels and entangled in fishing gear," he said.

Sarah Rieter is the director of ocean policy at the New England Aquarium and said one of the primary focuses of research there is the rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

"One of the things that we're finding with the North Atlantic right whale is that because of the warming in the Gulf of Maine, they're on the move. And we're not quite sure why they're on the move in terms of following their food source or because of the temperature," said Reiter.

The Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod Bay up to Nova Scotia, is one of the fastest-warming bodies of ocean water on earth. 

Last year, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute said it was the highest average temperature ever at 54 degrees Fahrenheit, more than four degrees higher than normal.

Burgess said another way they collect hormones is through the whale's teeth, or baleen.

"So the only way to get baleen is from a dead whale," she said, "but particularly in death, right whales have a story to tell."

Burgess is hopeful that story will help decipher how climate change is affecting the right whales and save them from extinction.

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