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Dispatches from the field

Rare Opportunity to Study the Critically Endangered North Pacific right whale in the Bering Sea


North Pacific right whale
North Pacific right whale  Photo: NOAA Fisheries

North Pacific
right whale
North Pacific right whale survey image
What's Happening
July 27
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International Whaling Commission-POWER survey gets underway in Alaska and NOAA scientist is onboard looking for North Pacific right whales

Over the next few months, NOAA Fisheries researcher Jessica Crance will be part of an international team of scientists studying whales in the Bering Sea. Jessica will be listening for whales and North Pacific right whales in particular. She is hoping to locate one of the 30 or so remaining North Pacific right whales known to inhabit the eastern portion of the Bering Sea. If she does, she and others will photograph and collect small skin samples to learn more about these elusive and critically endangered creatures.

Jess will be conducting her research on board a Japanese research vessel that was provided to the International Whaling Commission by the Government of Japan for the Commissionís Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research (POWER) survey. This is the 8th POWER survey. Whatís exciting is that this will be the first time that there will be an acoustic component to the research program. It also is the first time that there has been an opportunity to explore the expanse of the Bering Sea in search of North Pacific right whales. The plan is to survey the entire Bering Sea over three years. This year the focus will be on the eastern Bering Sea, next year the central portion and in 2019, the hope is to survey the western portion of the Bering Sea including Russian waters.

Besides North Pacific right whales, scientists will be collecting information on abundance, distribution and stock structure for North Pacific sei, humpback, sperm and gray whales and will complete a survey of the northern range of fin whales that was started in 2010-2012.

NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center is responsible for conducting research surveys to monitor the health and abundance of fish and marine mammal populations in the waters off Alaska and the Arctic. This area covers about a third of all U.S. federal waters. Conducting these surveys is costly, so we often work with commercial fishing vessels and other research organizations on their vessels in order to carry out our mission.

In this case, we are collaborating with the International Whaling Commission and the Government of Japan to continue a long standing, comprehensive survey, which includes international waters, and provides vital information to further understanding of whale population distribution, status and trends in the Bering Sea.This information is essential for resource managers to identify appropriate measures to conserve and protect whales in the U.S. waters off Alaska. We have supplied observers to ensure that the survey is carried out in accordance with U.S. federal laws. We also have a research scientist onboard collecting information on the critically endangered North Pacific right whale.

This is the first time that NOAA Fisheries has been able to conduct such an extensive acoustic survey to listen for whales, in particular the critically endangered North Pacific right whale, in the Bering Sea. Our research surveys to study this rare whale have been opportunistic as funding is available. This is the first time in 8 years that we have been able to gather both photographic and biological data on a North Pacific right whale in the eastern Bering Sea, which is essential if we are ever able to help this species recover. In this case, we were very lucky to encounter two whales at the same time.

None of this would be possible if it were not for this collaborative effort.

We are also hoping through this international collaboration to help promote a shared appreciation for the value of non-lethal research methods as the best way to collect science needed for the management and conservation of whales.

U.S. funds supporting this effort are for observer coverage, travel for the staff member involved, some salary for NOAA scientist(s) involved, together with some equipment used in the acoustic component of the survey. Specific research funded by the U.S. includes photographic identification of individual whales based upon natural markings, and the taking of small biopsy samples, which do no harm to the animal but provide a wealth of information on genetics, diet, reproductive state and other data essential to species conservation.

Deploying sonobuoy for North Pacific right whale study
Deploying sonobuoy  Photo: D. Allen


Meet the Blogger

Carey Kuhn
Jessica Crance

Jessica Crance is a research biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Centerís Marine Mammal Laboratory.

She joined the Labís Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program in 2009 after completing her M.S. at the University of San Diego on killer whale vocal development.

Her research focuses on marine mammal passive acoustics, with an emphasis on population monitoring, spatio-temporal distribution, vocal behavior, and call characteristics of Arctic and sub-Arctic marine mammals.


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