Right whales, climate change, and the press

If you believe the old maxim that "all press is good press", then It's been a good couple of weeks for EMLab.  While I'm usually pretty happy to be the center of attention, I'm beginning to think that maybe all press is not so good.  

Last week, the Ellsworth American ran a story titled "Is Climate Change Keeping Whales in the Gulf of Maine?", that reported on a lecture I gave at the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill.  The article did a good job describing many themes I discussed. Unfortunately, my talk did not address the question posed in the headline, namely whether climate change is keeping whales in the Gulf of Maine.  Given the strong feelings that right whales evoke along the coast of Maine, I was worried that this would create some negative feedback for our work, especially for some of my colleagues who are more actively engaged in the entanglement issues.  Thankfully, it didn't draw a lot of attention--no angry letters to the editor that I can find, but our local public radio station did pick up the story.  MPBN actually interviewed me and others to get the straight story.  My only complaint is that they only mentioned my GMRI affiliation.  

So what do we know about right whales and climate?  The Gulf of Maine, which extends from the coast of New England and Canada south to Georges Bank, is a special place for right whales.  All of the known right whale feeding grounds are found in this region, and all of the approximately 400 right whales in the North Atlantic spend some time in the Gulf during the spring and summer.  During the winter, pregnant females migrate to the calving grounds off of Florida.  We know very little about where males and nonpregnant females go during the winter.  This is why the recent sighting of 44 whales in the central Gulf of Maine in December was such big news.  While their presence was news to us, these animals were probably doing what right whales have done for thousands of years.  The fact that scientists only recently found them is more likely due to increased efforts to find whales than to a changing climate.  While it is unclear exactly how the Gulf of Maine will respond to a shifting climate, the coming changes will challenge the animals in the Gulf.  Scientists are learning more every year about how animals move in relation to environmental conditions.  Further research in this area will allow more precise predictions about how right whales and other animals will behave in a changing ocean.  

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This page contains a single entry by Andy Pershing published on February 7, 2009 9:40 AM.

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