Whale watchers rejoice: Increase of food brings back more wildlife

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/07/whale-watchers-rejoice-increase-of-food-brings-back-more-wildlife/

During a hot humid day in late August, I joined a large group of tourists and locals who lined up for a 10 a.m. Whale Watch tour outside the New England Aquarium in downtown Boston. Excited sea-goers looked forward to their 20-30 mile journey from Boston Harbor out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to catch a glimpse of a humpback whale, minke whale, fin whale or Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

“Everyone knows that they’re mammals, so when you’re on a whale watch you forget that they still have the same mammal features that we do,” said Laura Howes, the director of Marine Education and Conservation, who added that not only do they have hair but belly buttons as well.

This year’s increasing amount of small forage fish called sand lance at Rhode Island-sized Stellwagen Bank — the only federally designated marine protected area in New England — the humpback whales along with other marine wildlife have returned in droves, making this summer prime time to sneak a peak into the wildlife just offshore Boston’s bustling downtown.

In the Gulf of Maine, which runs from New Hampshire up to Nova Scotia, Canada, there are about 900 known humpback whales. Here in Stellwagen Bank, Howes says they see about two to three hundred different individual humpbacks throughout the season depending on the year.

In the spring, humpback whales migrate from their birthing ground on Silver Banks near the Dominican Republic to Stellwagen Bank off the shore of Massachusetts to feed during the summer. Each day, humpback whales consume about 3,000 pounds of food. Mostly, that food consists of sand lance, a little fish that is about three to six inches long and a primary food for many species of seabirds, marine mammals, and various commercial fish.

“In years when we’ve had a lot of sand lance, we’ve just had lots of fish and lots of whales and lots of birds and lots of everything and in the years we don’t have sand lance we’ve gotten very few whales, poor fishing, very few birds, so everything is linked to these guys,” said David Wiley, a research coordinator for Stellwagen Bank. “We don’t understand how and we don’t understand what drives these fluctuations, but it’s crucial that we understand these really basic components of marine ecology and surprisingly we know almost nothing about them.”

Sand lance feed off of zooplankton, which is too small for humpback whales, seabirds and commercial fish such as blue-fin tuna and codfish to eat. They need something bigger, which is sand lance. Wiley said, “They are a crucial link in the food web.”

For three years, researchers have been studying sand lance at Stellwagen Bank, but have been conducting mainly long-term studies on how sand lance interact with their environment and all the different species that depend on them. Because these studies are so complex, it takes years to finalize them.

In the initial surveys of 2012 sand lance were absent from 40 different sites. Beginning in 2014, new populations of sand lance arrived and the seabirds that had been tagged in other locations in the past started to use the sanctuary. This year has been even better with blue-fin tuna on the rise.

“We predict that 2016 is going to be a great year in Stellwagen Bank,” said Wiley. “We’ll see, if that’s true.”

This fall, researchers of Stellwagen Bank are planning to partner with the University of Connecticut to capture sand lance in order to study them more closely. They aim to test their survival under changing ocean acidification conditions that might occur as a consequence of climate change. Understanding the impact of changing conditions will be crucial, considering the importance of the sand lance to forage fish and, therefore, the entire ecosystem.

For now, the higher number of whales is attracting more whale watchers, who rejoice at the many live sightings. This, in turn, leads to a greater appreciation of local marine wildlife.

“If you want to help the environment or if you want to make healthy choices for the environment and if you go out and see the thing in the wild you will care more about it,” said Howes who added, “[Boston Harbor Cruises] take about a 120,000 people [whale watching] each year. That’s a 120,000 people we are impacting and maybe we can get them to do something to impact the ocean and the whales.”

From what I could tell from my own whale watching tour, with whales playing and crowds cheering, it seems like a win-win for all.