September 25, 2008

C.U. and DEC Discover Whales By N.Y. Harbor

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Imagine looking out from the Statue of Liberty and seeing not only the New York City harbor, but also one of the most endangered mammals living today. We now know that this is a possibility, as researchers from the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have, for the first time, recorded the presence of the northern right whale, along with four other species, in the water.
According to Chris Clark, the director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the study found the presence of sei whales, blue whales, minke whales, humpback whales and northern right whales in clusters by New York Harbor between JFK airport and New Jersey.
“That to me was the amazing part — how easy it was to find [whales] once we decided to look for them. I thought it would be more like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it turns out it wasn’t a haystack and they weren’t needles,” Clark said.
The study began March 1, 2008 and stopped in late May before resuming again in September.
Bioacoustics Monitoring technology, developed entirely by Cornell students, was used to detect the sound of whales in the waters. Glass spheres with roughly 17-inch diameters were lowered into the ocean and stabilized by an anchor. The glass protected the electronics while an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, brought the sound electronically into the computer.
The computer then built a data file and placed the information into a hard drive that is interpreted by researchers. The technology was placed in a line starting near the middle of Long Island, about 10 miles off the beach, and then about every 10 miles until the technology spanned 70 miles off shore.
When the time came for the spheres to be retrieved, a code was sent to a device attached to the spheres that releases the anchor string, allowing the spheres to float to the surface. Researchers, using Stony Brooke University’s research vessel Sea Wolf, then retrieved the spheres. The technology is battery run and records continuously for three months.
“The reason why this is such a great technology is because a lot of times when you are out on the water, the animals don’t necessarily surface. Whales could be there but we don’t know it,” said Nicole Mihnovets, Marine Endangered Species Program Coordinator for N.Y. State DEC.
The study was funded by the N.Y. State Oceans and Great Lakes Ecosystem Based Conservation Initiative, the National Marine Fishery Service in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the DEC U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
These findings indicate that programs designed to reduce the risk of whale-ship collisions may be worthwhile, especially since the northern right whale is one of the most rare and endangered marine mammal species.
“Right whales die from two major causes: collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear. With fewer than 400 remaining, every death is a severe blow to the species’ prospects for survival,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
According to Clark, the next step will be to install an automatic listening system where boats can be alerted of whales’ presence in real time. A system along these lines is currently functioning in Boston.
Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research program has also launched a website,, where the public can go to listen to the microphone feed live.
“[This research] is a great model of how all it takes is a couple of key people who are really passionate about advancing conservation and management through sound science,” Mihovets said.