Humpback whales, mostly teenagers, flock to New York-New Jersey Harbor

Humpback whales, mostly teenagers, flock to New York-New Jersey Harbor

Researchers don’t have all the answers about why the whales are choosing to spend time in New York City waters despite the high risk from commercial and recreational vessel traffic. But the whales have been observed voraciously eating, specifically menhaden, a silvery 1-pound fish native to the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. Menhaden populations have increased over the last decade, along those of with bottlenose dolphins and minke whales.

Meghan Rickard, a marine biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said that this data is important for plans and considerations being made for the management of humpback whales in the area.

Young and juvenile whales are feeding closer to shore, according to the study, while the older ones are seen further offshore. Brown said they are not fully sure of the reason, but it could be as simple as juveniles learning to feed and not fully understanding how to avoid the potential danger of ship strikes. Observed in other animals, the younger humpbacks are known to break away and travel further from the pack.

Brown credits this whale gathering to federal regulations from the early 1970s, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The presence of menhaden is also an indication of cleaner water. These foot-long fish feast on phytoplankton — which depend on clean water. But Brown also points out that restrictions on the once heavy commercial fishing of menhaden has propelled the fish’s abundance.

“Healthy fish stocks will bring in a healthy whale stock,” Rickard said. “Cleaning up the waterways and also just having a solid fisheries management plan for the menhaden also are factors in the healthy fish stocks.”

Another theory is that these colossal ocean creatures are swimming to the metropolitan area because they are being pushed out of their own natural habitats. A study found that the waters in the Gulf of Maine, where many of these whales also frequent, are warming faster than average. Brown thinks the warming of this major feeding ground may have driven humpback whales to migrate to new coasts.

For those potential reasons, the humpbacks may be braving New York Harbor, where their No. 1 risk is boat traffic. Brown said it is common to observe humpback whales with scars caused by swimming too close to a freight ship’s propeller or minor injuries from bumping into boats. During the summer months, it’s a feeding frenzy, and the cetaceans are distracted by eating as much as they can.

“Essentially they have a one-track mind, and are not necessarily looking out for vessels,” Brown said.

The DEC very frequently gets reports of run-ins with whales. Recreational boating season overlaps with humpback feeding season, but Rickard said there is room to share the waterways.

“Being more cognizant when folks are out enjoying the water and just paying attention to the whales will help support them being here safely,” Rickard said.

Researchers will continue observing the whales in the bight, and Brown hopes they will be able to fill in the blanks on their most basic biology, from diet to stress levels.

“Are they moving in and out of the New York Bight? That’s a question we don’t know the answer to,” Brown said.

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