Whale and Dolphin Research in the Northeast
We seek to understand more about the way whales and dolphins use the coastal and offshore areas of the Northwest Atlantic and how to protect them from harmful conflicts with human activity.
More than 30 species of dolphins and whales spend time in the waters of the Northeast region. Many of these are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and all are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. We collect data to support science and conservation management of these animals. We use platforms that range from underwater vehicles and listening devices to shipboard and aerial (drones and traditional aircraft) surveys. Our scientists analyze this information to detect trends in abundance, demographics, residency, genetics, behavior, and human-caused mortality. Programs focusing on multiple species include:
- The Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species
- Fishery bycatch analysis conducted on Fisheries Sampling data
- Passive acoustics research
However, much of our research focuses specifically on endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Right Whale Sighting Advisory System
The Right Whale Sighting Advisory System is a NOAA Fisheries program designed to reduce collisions between ships and the endangered North Atlantic right whale by alerting mariners to the presence of the right whales. We obtain whale sighting reports from a variety of sources including aerial surveys, shipboard surveys, and whale watch vessels. We also get reports from the Coast Guard, commercial ships, fishing vessels, and the general public. In addition to making data available for public viewing on an interactive map, we contribute these sightings to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, OBIS-SEAMAP, and WhaleMap. Data are also made available to mariners and the general public through the Whale Alert App.
North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Surveys
The North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey locates and records the seasonal distribution of North Atlantic right whales off the northeastern coast of the United States and Canada. We conduct year-round surveys aboard a NOAA Twin Otter aircraft. We submit photographs of right whales to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s photo-identification database maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium, and determine if vessel speed restrictions should be enacted.
Vessel-based research is important for photography and genetic sampling. This includes monitoring right whale activity on the calving grounds in the Southeast and launching small boats from research ships or from shore in the Northeast. We do biopsy sampling and tagging studies from small boats and can approach the whales under special research permits. While right whales are the primary targets of much of our small boat work, we also research other species such as beaked whales.
Right Whale Photo-Identification
We are able to identify individual right whales by patterns of callosities on their heads, along with scars and other markings. Researchers take photographs from vessels and airplanes, then compare those photographs to the online North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Knowing the individual identity of a whale opens up many possible avenues of research and conservation management including demographics, social structure, reproductive biology, communication, and informed disentanglement operations. The process of matching a photograph to the catalog can be time-consuming. We are working to automate this process using Artificial Intelligence in collaboration with Flukebook and Deepsense.
Serious Injury and Mortality Determination
A sad but important job we do here is reviewing all whale and dolphin deaths and injuries, especially those resulting from interactions with humans. These can be from ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, plastic ingestion, or other factors. We work in conjunction with government and stranding response partners in the United States and Canada to identify these cases, and to determine the cause of death or injury. We publish annual mortality and serious injury reports and bycatch analysis reports to help monitor the populations. This information feeds into our annual Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports. They also help support management efforts to reduce human impacts to whales and dolphins, such as Take Reduction Plans.
- Learn more about Take Reduction Plans
- Learn more about the 2017-2019 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event
- Learn what happens when a right whale dies
Outreach efforts include the Right Whale Sighting Advisory Program, classroom visits through the COAST program, bycatch mitigation, and the Right Whale Sign Campaign. We make our data publicly available through partnerships with the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and OBIS-SEAMAP.
- Whale Season is Here
- NOAA Aerial Whale Survey Team Assists with Disentangling North Atlantic Right Whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
- Spring Brings Increased NEFSC Right Whale Monitoring in New England Waters
- Summer Survey to Study the Trophic Ecology of Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s Whales - Post 2
- The Changing Voices of North Atlantic Right Whales
- True's Beaked Whales: Secret No Longer
- Making Facebook for Whales
Note: See the Protected Species Branch Passive Acoustics and the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species web pages for publication lists specific to those programs.
- Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports
- AMAPPS Annual Reports
- Mortality and Serious Injury Reports
- Pace, R.M.III, P.J. Corkeron and S.D. Kraus. 2017. State–space mark–recapture estimates reveal a recent decline in abundance of North Atlantic right whales Ecology and Evolution 7:8730-8741. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.3406.
- Hayes, S.A., S. Gardner, L. Garrison, A. Henry, and L. Leandro. 2018. North Atlantic Right Whales – Evaluating their recovery challenges in 2018. NOAA Tech Memo NMFS-NE 247; 24 p.
- Bogucki, R., M. Cygan, C.B. Khan, M. Klimek, J. K. Milczek and M. Mucha. 2019. Applying deep learning to right whale photo identification. Conservation Biology 33: 676–684.DOI: 10.1111/cobi.13226.
- Pace, R.M. and R.L. Merrick. 2008. North Atlantic Ocean habitats important to the conservation of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Northeast Fisheries Science Center reference document 08-07.
- Baumgartner, M.F., F.W. Wenzel, N.S.J. Lysiak, M. R. Patrician 2017 North Atlantic right whale foraging ecology and its role in human-caused mortality. Marine Ecology Progress Series 81: 165–181. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12315.