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Why Cape Cod Bay is Critical for Right Whales

A right whale skim feeding at the surface.
Courtesy of Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

Add this to the list of what makes Cape Cod special: Cape Cod Bay may well be the place where the fate of endangered North Atlantic right whales is decided.

There are only about 470 North Atlantic right whales in existence. They were hunted to the brink of extinction, and their future remains precarious. They face a barage of threats - ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, increasing noise levels in the ocean, and climate change.

Dr. Stormy Mayo is director of right whale habitat studies at Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Here's what he says distinguishes our humble little bay when it comes to the future of right whales.

  1. Cape Cod Bay is a critical mid-winter feeding ground. There are days between January and April when a significant proportion of the total North Atlantic population - roughly 20-25% - can be found in Cape Cod Bay.
  2. While in Cape Cod Bay, right whales tend to feed right at the surface of the water. This is unique; in almost all other feeding areas, food is found at greater depths. This provides unparalleled access for both scientists and rescuers.
  3. Stormy's team at the Center for Coastal Studies has been conducting annual surveys of right whales for nearly three decades. This research has yielded unique insights into right whale behavior, and is starting to reveal long-term trends that may be tied to human impacts like climate change and increasing noise levels in the ocean.
  4. Cape Cod Bay is surrounded on three sides by scientists: Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Research - and researchers - from these institutions have been essential to getting conservation actions like the Right Whale Listening Network and regulations requiring more whale-friendly fishing gear off the ground (into the water, one might say).
  5. Cape Cod-based rescue teams are taking concrete actions to mitigate human threats to right whales. Four out of every five right whales bear scars of entanglement in fishing gear. The Center for Coastal Studies' rescue team continues to develop new and innovative ways to disentangle whales.