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Vol. 4, No. 3


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Gulf Log

Tracking right whales to prevent collisions

BOSTON - The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium convened at the New England Aquarium on October 26 and 27 to report on efforts under way to save the world's rarest whale. An estimated 300 right whales swim in Atlantic waters, and their numbers are declining largely due to interactions with humans. Collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear are the primary known cause of right whale deaths. To prevent future collisions and entanglements, Consortium members are using various methods to detect whales and predict where they will be traveling or foraging.

North Atlantic right whale

"The amount of distance the animals travel is amazing," said Bruce Mate, the director of the marine mammal program at Oregon State University, who uses satellite tagging to track individual whales over periods of two or three months. His studies indicate that right whales range farther offshore than previously thought. "The Bay of Fundy is home base for these animals, but they travel widely," he said. Mate recorded one female and her calf that journeyed 2,500 miles from the Bay of Fundy to the southeastern waters of the United States over a six-week period. 

Closer to shore, aerial surveys spot whales that are injured or swimming in heavily trafficked waters. Since 1998, a team from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NFSC) working in concert with two other whale survey projects, has been flying over southern New England waters from April through July when whales congregate at feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel. Similar efforts occur off the coasts of Florida and Georgia where right whales calve in the winter. 

"Surveys are vital," said Tim Cole of NFSC. The U.S. Coast Guard relays notices of sightings to commercial vessels entering right whale critical habitat areas to alert captains of potential collisions. Surveys also identify areas beyond defined critical habitat zones that might warrant seasonal closures to fishing and shipping when whales are aggregating, Cole said.

Since aerial surveys are limited to days when weather conditions permit good visibility, researchers are experimenting with underwater acoustic equipment that will allow them to locate whales remotely. Hydrophones fixed in the ocean that detect the vocalizations of whales could be used to create an automatic detection system that would warn mariners to divert their course away from whales.

Christopher Clark of Cornell University's Bioacoustics Lab reported that six acoustic recording devices deployed in the Great South Channel successfully recorded the calls of right, humpback and fin whales in May of this year. "It's a viable mechanism," Clark said of the recorders that can detect whales five to 10 miles away.

by Maureen Kelly, 
Gulf of Maine Times intern

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Action Plan update

The Gulf of Maine Council is creating its next five-year action plan to cover the years 2001-2006. The plan is expected to be released in July of 2001. The Council welcomes comments on its draft, which can be viewed at The Council seeks to build on its current action plan by maintaining a focus on habitat protection. It also recognizes the importance of stewardship, education, sustainable development, and resource use. For more information contact Laura Marron at (603) 271-8866. 

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Four Birds Added to N.H.'s Endangered Species List

New Hampshire's Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules has approved a proposal from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to increase the protection status of the roseate tern, least tern, northern harrier and purple martin from threatened to endangered. The populations of all four birds are in decline, not only in New Hampshire, but throughout the Northeast.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the roseate tern as endangered for populations along the Atlantic coast south to North Carolina, while the least tern is endangered for the interior sections of the United States only. 

The roseate tern is "in trouble globally," said John Kanter, coordinator of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program. The terns, whose feathers were prized by the millinery trade at the turn of the century, have been in decline since the 1950's despite being under protection by law. 

Now the terns face a non-human threat. New England populations must compete for nesting sites with other birds such as black-backed gulls and herring gulls that prey on tern eggs and chicks. Even so, Kanter cites the Audubon Society of New Hampshire's tern restoration project on the Isle of Shoals as evidence that the tern's "nesting possibility [in New Hampshire] is real." Project participants have worked to encourage tern nesting on White and Seavey Islands by attracting the birds with decoys and recordings while warding off gulls during their nesting season.

Least terns, which nest in shallow cavities in the sand, also suffer from a lack of undisturbed nesting sites. Development along coastal areas and recreational use of beaches has reduced the amount of nesting areas. Least terns are also "very susceptible" to predation from animals such as foxes, raccoons and skunks, Kanter said. These opportunistic animals thrive in populated areas where they can feed on garbage and den in structures.

The northern harrier and purple martin are declining in New Hampshire because of changes in habitat resulting from the reforestation of former agricultural lands. Both birds were placed on New Hampshire's threatened species list in the early 1980's.

The northern harrier existed statewide until the early 1980's. At one time there were more than 20 harrier nests in the state, but today there are only ten known nests, all in Coos County in northern New Hampshire, Kanter said. 

Chris Martin, senior wildlife biologist at New Hampshire Audubon, points to the subdivision of former farmlands as a major factor in the harrier's struggle to survive. For a bird of prey that hunts in open country, lawns do not supply the same habitat as open fields, he said.

The purple martin, North America's largest swallow, is also in "serious jeopardy," Martin said. There are only three breeding colonies in the entire state, down from ten or twelve colonies in the 1980's. In the eastern United States, martins are entirely dependent on man-made, multi-holed dwellings for nesting, he said.

by Maureen Kelly, 
Gulf of Maine Times intern

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Canada's endangered species still at risk

The 353 species of plants and animals in danger of vanishing from the Canadian landscape were thrown a tenuous lifeline earlier this year when Environment Minister David Anderson introduced the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in Parliament. The proposed legislation sought to protect threatened species and habitats while respecting "the rights and activities of landowners, resource-users, workers and communities." SARA also tried hard to avoid stepping on the toes of provinces with jurisdiction over wildlife management and land use. It favored cooperation and voluntary efforts over the more litigious approach adopted in the United States. If a province was unwilling or unable to protect a critical habitat then the Act gave the federal government "emergency authority" to protect it. Steep fines faced those harming protected species or willfully destroying their habitats.

While conservation groups applauded the cooperative tone, some like the Canadian Nature Federation and the Sierra Club of Canada called the new Act even weaker than an earlier attempt, adding that it lacked the legal muscle needed to do the job properly. They said the bill left too much room for political discretion, making habitat protection uncertain. 

Thus reaction was mixed when Prime Minister Jean Chretien called an election in October, effectively killing all legislation on the order paper. Existing legislation, even if it passes Parliament and makes its way to the Senate, dies when the election writ is dropped and returns to square one of a long process when the next house sitting convenes.

While many groups didn't like the proposed bill, they said at least it offered a new start. 

"We really wanted the chance to see the bill improved," Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, told the Canadian Press. "But we can't mourn the death of a bill that wouldn't have done any good."

This marks the second time Canada has attempted to pass species at risk legislation. In 1996, Bill C-65, The Canada Endangered Species Act, opposed by environmentalist groups, landowners and resource users, died when an election was called.

Five Canadian provinces - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba - have laws to protect species at risk of extinction. 

Other protection measures fall largely under the government's Habitat Stewardship Program and its recovery plans. In conjunction with SARA, the government had earmarked $90 million (US $60.3 million) over the next three years for species at risk under the stewardship program. Of particular interest to the Gulf of Maine region was the announcement of a recovery plan for the North Atlantic right whale. 

Jerry Conway, the species at risk coordinator for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said in spite of SARA's demise the funding programs would go ahead. "DFO is still proceeding with all initiatives with respect to species at risk," he said.

by Jon Percy

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West Nile Virus & pesticides

Some of the chemicals being used to combat the West Nile Virus have direct, toxic effects on birds and other wildlife, while others are highly toxic to non-target and beneficial insects, such as butterflies, bees, dragonflies, and to most aquatic life, according to the American Bird Conservancy. 

Kelley Tucker, the director of the Conservancy's pesticide and birds campaign, says that rampant spraying of pesticides greatly reduces the numbers of insects available as food to resident birds and the millions of migratory warblers, thrushes and shorebirds that stop in areas that have been sprayed. 

The response to West Nile is a typical example of how pesticides are used to control perceived risks, risks they often end up compounding," she says.

West Nile Virus lives in some birds and may be transmitted to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. It can cause a variety of illnesses including encephalitis or meningitis.

The virus has had far greater impact on birds than humans with 63 bird species, amounting to thousands of birds including merlins, great horned owls and gulls, testing positive to date, Tucker says. By contrast, there have been eight human deaths from West Nile in the United States in two years.

Scientific evidence suggests that mosquito spraying enhances infection rates in birds that carry the virus by compromising the immune system. Too, mosquitoes that survive may be more efficient transmitters of the virus.

So far this year, more than 3,600 birds have tested positive for the virus in 11 states including Massachusetts and New Hampshire. As of October, no cases had been reported in Maine or in Canada. 

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey reported recently that the virus can be transmitted from bird to bird in a confined laboratory setting. Earlier research found that the virus was only transmitted through mosquito bites. This new finding suggests the virus could spread across the continent faster than predicted. Scientists at USGS say they are concerned that the fall migration of millions of birds from and through the 400 mile wide infected region in the northeastern United States may move the virus southward along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts sites. 

The Conservancy and other conservation groups say now that biologists have confirmed bird to bird spread, there is even less basis for supporting pesticide spraying as a means of battling the virus.

Instead of spraying adult mosquitoes, the Conservancy suggests, public officials should control them at the larval stage using less toxic methods, which is more effective and less harmful to wildlife. The Conservancy is also urging the federal government to expand monitoring of wild birds for the virus, so that researchers can begin to determine if bird populations are suffering because of the disease.

In Long Island Sound, the lobster catch dropped by 90 percent in 1999 after pesticides were sprayed following an outbreak of the virus in New York City, in which seven people died. Many lobstermen contend that the crustaceans were killed by the pesticides, although no studies have proven that claim.

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