Friday, December 2, 2016

Why All These Whales Are Around NJ

A humpback fluke- the tail of each humpback whale is visibly unique.

There have been a number of humpback whale sightings off New York and New Jersey the past month. Humpbacks weigh from 25 to 40 tons, and can grow to 60 feet in length and they are impressive as they feed and breach.

Humpbacks are baleen whales, meaning they don't have teeth but instead filter small fish, plankton and tiny crustaceans out of the water. They spend the spring, summer and fall building up their blubber, which nourishes them during the winter breeding season when they don't feed.

In early September, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its decision to remove most humpback whale populations from its endangered species list. Once depleted by commercial whaling, humpbacks had been on the list since 1970.

There are 14 distinct global populations of humpbacks and those along the East Coast breed in the Caribbean and migrate north for feeding. Currently the most  endangered populations include those that breed off Central America and migrate up the coasts of California and Oregon.

Though no longer listed as endangered, those on our coast are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the International Whaling Commission's 1982 moratorium on whale hunting.

There are stronger populations now, but why so many sightings lately? Simple answer: food.

Commercial catch limits have been placed on menhaden, also known as bunker, an oily fish that's a major food source for humpbacks. New rules and quotas put in place in by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012 cut by 20 percent the amount of bunker that could be harvested by commercial fishing operations.

Menhaden by Brian.gratwicke - wikipedia.org   CC BY 2.5, Link
Whales migrate along the New Jersey coast late summer through late fall and are feeding heavily on the improved menhaden numbers.

Menhaden/bunker are a slow swimming species that has been called "The Most Important Fish in the Sea." They feed on phytoplankton and are a food source for whales and also bluefish and striped bass and osprey and bald eagles. Bunker are also turned into pet food, lobster bait, aquaculture food and fish oil supplements.

Humpbacks are by far the most frequently sighted whales along New Jersey's coast. We also occasionally spot some of the smaller populations of finback, minke and North Atlantic right whales as they migrate through our waters.


MORE about humpback whales:  www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html

MORE about whales in our area: Gotham Whale  and Cape May Whale Watch

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