Humpback whales, mostly teenagers, flock to New York-New Jersey Harbor
Researchers don’t have all the answers about why whales choose to hang out in New York waters despite the high risk from commercial and recreational vessel traffic. But the whales have been observed eating voraciously, especially the menhaden, a 1 pound silver fish native to the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. Menhaden populations have increased over the past decade, along with those of bottlenose dolphins and minke whales.
Meghan Rickard, a marine biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), said the data is important for ongoing plans and considerations for managing humpback whales in the region. .
According to the study, young and juvenile calves feed closer to shore, while older ones are observed further offshore. Brown said they weren’t entirely sure why, but it could be as simple as juveniles learning to feed and not fully understanding how to avoid the potential danger of ship strikes. Seen in other animals, the youngest humpback whales are known to detach themselves and move away from the pack.
Brown attributes this gathering of whales to federal regulations of the early 1970s, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The presence of menhaden is also an indication of cleaner water. These foot-long fish feast on phytoplankton, which depends on clean water. But Brown also points out that restrictions on the once-intensive commercial fishing of menhaden have boosted the abundance of the fish.
“Healthy fish stocks will bring healthy whale stocks,” Rickard said. “Cleaning up waterways and just having a strong fisheries management plan for menhaden are also factors in healthy fish stocks.”
Another theory is that these colossal ocean creatures are swimming towards the metropolitan area because they are being driven from their own natural habitats. A study found that the waters of the Gulf of Maine, where many of these whales also frequent, are warming faster than average. Brown thinks the warming of this important feeding area may have caused humpback whales to migrate to new shores.
For these potential reasons, humpback whales may brave New York Harbor, where their No. 1 risk is boat traffic. Brown said it’s common to see humpback whales with scars from swimming too close to a cargo ship’s propeller or minor injuries from hitting boats. During the summer months it is a feeding frenzy and the cetaceans are distracted by eating as much as they can.
“Essentially, they’re one-sided and not necessarily looking for ships,” Brown said.
The DEC very frequently receives reports of encounters with whales. The boating season overlaps the humpback whale feeding season, but Rickard said there is room to share the waterways.
“Being more aware when people are enjoying the water and only paying attention to the whales will help them stay here safe,” Rickard said.
Researchers will continue to observe the whales in the bay, and Brown hopes they can fill in the gaps on their most basic biology, from diet to stress levels.
“Are they going in and out of New York Bight? It’s a question we don’t know the answer to,” Brown said.