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Right Whale Sightings Off Nantucket Steadily Increasing
January 1, 2019

north atlantic right whale known as nantucket, catalog number 1971, swims off the coast of nantucket island massachusetts on november 26, 2018

One of the 17 North Atlantic right whales sighted off the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts on November 26th, 2018 was actually a whale named Nantucket (#1971). He has severe scars that were first photographed in August of 2017 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence - the year two right whales were killed from entanglements traced to that area and at least another four were entangled in snow crab gear from that region. He was named after the island of Nantucket because when rescuers were trying to free him from a bad entanglement in offshore lobster gear back in 1997 he still managed to keep swimming towards Nantucket. He was just 8 years old at the time of that entanglement. The incredible details of his rescue are talked about in David Laist's book 'North Atlantic Right Whales: From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon'. The section on Nantucket's 1997 rescue can be found here and more information about the book, including purchase information, can be found in our Books section.
credit: Leah Crowe, NOAA/NEFSC permit #21371

A total of 69 highly endangered North Atlantic right whales were seen in an area south of the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts on December 31, 2018, representing about 17% of their estimated population of 409. They were first seen in large numbers off Nantucket on November 26th when 17 were sighted (about 4% of the population) and they have spent significant time in the area as their numbers have steadily increased. Recent surveys sighted 33 on December 15th, 36 on the 24th, 53 on the 30th and now 69 on the 31st.

The most recently sighted groups of right whales have been seen further south than the original November sightings and are getting dangerously close to the southern part of the Boston/New York shipping lanes which is very worrisome as spending time there could have disastrous consequences. They should be able to spend time wherever they want and have been able to do so for millennia, until humans began their seemingly never-ending quest to industrialize every part of the planet. Speed restrictions and Traffic Separation Schemes for ships appear to have lowered the amount of deaths from ship strikes but they are still the second largest threat to North Atlantic right whales after fishing gear entanglements.

There is currently a voluntary speed limit in an area 26 nautical miles south of Nantucket that was originally put in place after 4 right whales were seen on November 18, 2018 and has been extended as the sightings of right whales have continued. The zone, known as a Dynamic Management Area (DMA) is currently in place through January 4th. In light of the recent sightings, we urge the NOAA to extend it further. Unfortunately, the biggest problem is that the speed restriction zone is voluntary which isn't nearly good enough. Thankfully the mandatory speed restrictions in the Cape Cod Bay Seasonal Management Area (SMA) just took effect on January 1, joining the active SMA's in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast US. Unfortunately, the Off Race Point and Great South Channel SMA's don't take effect until March 1 and April 1, respectively.

The patchwork of various restrictions, some mandatory and others not, simply isn't good enough - they must be expanded and made mandatory. The North Atlantic right whale population has experienced a large decline since 2016, from an estimated 451 in 2016 to 409 today, and they continue to face the threat of ship strikes. In our post from December 18, 2018, Speed Restrictions Implemented on East Coast, we talk about the death of the five-month old calf of Punctuation (#1281) in 2016 and the death of the one year old calf of Mayport (#4094) in 2017, both from ship strikes. Punctuation's calf was killed just a few days after the mandatory speed restrictions in the area were lifted and Mayport's calf was killed in Cape Cod Bay, while the mandatory speed restrictions in that area were in effect. The death of these two young right whales, one being killed right after a speed restriction was lifted and one being killed while one was still in place, show that they must be expanded and made permanent with even stronger enforcement.

More Information:

Speed Restrictions Implemented on East Coast - 12/18/2018 (updated 12/19 and 12/27)

NOAA Implements Voluntary Speed Restrictions Near Nantucket - 11/23/2018 (updated 12/10)