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Northeast CASC-supported research finds climate change is having an impact on how large whale species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, use habitats in the warming Gulf of Maine, showing that right whales’ use of Cape Cod Bay has shifted significantly over the last 20 years.

Three dark grey North Atlantic right whales feeding at the water surface in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, USA.
North Atlantic right whales feeding at the water surface in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, USA. Photos taken under NOAA research permit #19315-01.

North Atlantic right whales are a critically endangered species with a population at just over 300 individuals in the Gulf of Maine due in part to collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear in their ever-changing environment. Changes in phenology, or the timing of life cycle events, can affect when and where animals like right whales migrate, and how long they use a certain habitat. In the North Atlantic, climate change is altering when spring occurs, and North Atlantic right whales are shifting their movement patterns to match. A recent article from the University of Massachusetts Amherst highlighted Northeast CASC supported research identifying how the timing of large whale species habitat use, including North Atlantic right whales, has shifted in Cape Cod Bay in the last 20 years, coinciding with the later onset of spring. They also found that whales are using this habitat over longer periods of time, increasing their interactions with humans and industry.

Despite their size, researchers are still learning about whale migration, and this work provides key insight into how the whales may be changing their migration patterns to adapt to climate change.

“Even though they’re the largest mammals on earth, we have an incomplete understanding of where some whales go and when,” says Michelle Staudinger, ecologist and Science Coordinator for the Northeast CASC. “This new research helps us understand how seasonal whale migration is changing, which is critical for their protection and conservation in our region.”

This work is supported by the Northeast CASC project, “How and Why is the Timing and Occurrence of Seasonal Migrants in the Gulf of Maine Changing Due to Climate?. 

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