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whale breechFirst the good news, and it’s really an extraordinary revelation. Whales have returned to the Jersey Shore. Yes! Social media is becoming filled with pictures and videos of people observing whales swimming and feeding near Sandy Hook, Long Branch, Asbury Park, Manasquan, Long Beach Island, Cape May and other places near the coast from Raritan Bay down to Delaware Bay.

What’s more, very large marine mammals are making a comeback along the south shore of Long Island and even into New York Harbor, once thought by many people as the most polluted body of water in the United States. Now local waters are cleaner (though not totally clean, there is still more work to be done), and whales are making a comeback. The first regular sighting of whales began around 2010 with numbers steadily increasing ever since.

According to the environmental group Gotham Whale, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for whales and marine mammals around New York City, a total of 272 whales were spotted near the entrance to New York Harbor in 2018. An amazing jump from 2011 when just five whales were observed. So many whales now in fact that a whole new tourist industry has emerged - whale watching. That’s right, there are actually whale watching tours out of Queens, NY and Belmar, NJ to take people to view these large leviathans up close.

What was once a rarity, going whale watching around New York and New Jersey has become reality. We no longer have to take the long, often congested drive up I-95 to Cape Cod or Maine. For the first time in a century, whales, mostly humpback whales and occasionally finback, minke and other species of whales, have returned to New York and the Jersey Shore to be viewed in their natural habitat.

It’s an incredible story. Whales have not been seen in great abundance within these waters for centuries. Although whales were swimming along the Jersey Shore in pre-colonial times, they disappeared soon after Europeans arrived in the 1600s. Commercial whaling caused the first demise of whales. Author Harry B. Weiss in his classic book, Whaling in New Jersey (1974), tells us that fishermen from New England in the 1670s established a permanent residence in Cape May to hunt whales in Delaware Bay for their oil. The killing of whales didn’t stop here though. Quite a few local residents along the Jersey Shore, including in the Sandy Hook area of Monmouth County, would supplement their income during the winter by hunting and killing humpbacks and right whales, often called “whale fishing.” Author Gustav Kobbè in his equally classic book, New Jersey Coast and Pines (1889) writes that Spermaceti Cove in Sandy Hook Bay is named after a whale that washed ashore in 1668. While no one knows for sure how many whales were killed along the Jersey Shore, the commercial whaling industry in the United State during the 18th and 19th centuries killed hundreds of thousands of sperm, right, bowhead, humpback, and pilot whales for their oil and whalebone. It's estimated that nearly 236,000 whales were killed in the 19th century alone. So much loss that it nearly wiped out all species of whales to extinction. Sadly, whaling did cause the loss of the Atlantic gray whale in the 18th century.

After whaling, it was sickening water pollution that came about to fowl the home and habitat for many aquatic creatures. Dirty water increased mightily as populations of people expanded along the coast and inland during the 19th and 20th centuries. Waters around New York City, Long Island and the Jersey Shore were becoming open sewers, severely polluted and unhealthy. A highly toxic stew of raw sewage, industrial chemicals, medical waste, oil, and garbage was floating into bays and ocean waters from creeks and rivers and from offshore barges. Author Joseph Mitchell I think categorized New York Harbor and surrounding waters best in his essay written in the 1950s, The Bottom of the Harbor. Mitchell writes, “The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say you could bottle it and sell it for poison.” Waters were not safe or healthy for people, crabs and fish, let alone for a variety of marine mammals.

Fortunately, we have come a long way since the bad old days of killing whales and poison water along and near the Jersey Shore. Thanks to a handful of successful federal environmental policies, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (all created by Congress in the 1970s) many species of whales have been on the road to recovery in the United States.

Such is the case for the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). While the species is still among the most endangered whales in the world, with fewer than 10% of their original population remaining, in recent years the Western Atlantic humpback population has been observed more frequently feeding along the eastern United States. They are now listed as being under the "least concern" among whales on the IUCN List of Endangered Species with a population estimated around 15,000 whales.

Yet, hold off popping any bottles of Champaign and celebrating the return of whales for now. While the news sounds good overall, there are still several significant threats to the survival of whales in the eastern United States, including the Jersey Shore. We have not fully saved the whales so far!

Here now is the bad news, and it’s very upsetting. Every summer a handful of whales wash up dead along the Jersey Shore and on Long Island beaches. Unfortunately, the sight of a whale washing up dead along the coast still takes place with great frequency. Why?

ship coastOne of the most significant threats to whales today is from ship strikes. According to the World Wild Fund for Nature, shipping traffic has increased 300% between 1992 and 2013, and continues to increase at a rate of 2-3% per year. Ships that keep growing in size and speed now move 10.3 billion tons of goods around the globe each year.  Many of the world’s busiest shipping and ferry lanes overlap directly with areas where whales are feeding or traveling between their feeding and breeding grounds. When ships travel quickly through these areas, there is a high risk of collision, injury and death, as whales are often unable to get out of the ship’s path in time. Ship strikes are known to be one of the leading causes of death for endangered and vulnerable whale populations, including the Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right whale.

Around New York and New Jersey it’s a busy and bustling urbanized marine highway. The Port of New York and New Jersey is the largest port on the East Coast, the 23rd largest port in the world and the third-largest in the nation, followed by the Port of Los Angles and the Port of Long Beach, both located in California. In 2015, the Port of New York and New Jersey contributed to over 11% of the total North American container trade and The Journal of Commerce recorded that 4,811 ships entered the harbor in 2010 delivering mostly vehicles, oil, appliances, and plastic products from oversea markets. On average, there is about 13 cargo ships entering the harbor every day.

Large cargo, cruise, container, and industrial ships are coming and going all the time within about 2 miles from the coast of New York and New Jersey. These important shipping lanes are also where many species of whales spend their time feeding, migrating, resting, and socializing. This puts whales and ships in direct conflict, with numerous whales at great risk of being struck by a passing vessel and dying.

It’s an act that woefully takes place repeatedly. For instance, on October 29, 2019, a juvenile humpback whale was found dead at Island Beach State Park in New Jersey. The cause of death was being hit multiple times by a ship’s propellers. Officials from the nonprofit Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine NJ believe the whale was hit by a large boat or ship based on the multiple large gashes on its back and sides.

whale beachOn May 20, 2018, a 32-foot humpback whale was found dead on Long Island. It was likely hit by a boat according to the nonprofit Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. The female whale, estimated to be about 2-5 years old, washed up in Long Beach, New York. A necropsy performed on the whale revealed "signs of bruising consistent with a vessel strike.”

On April 27, 2017, another large, whale washed up along the Jersey Shore. A 43-foot long decomposing whale, possibly an endangered sei whale, was found on a Toms River beach. It was likely killed by a ship according to Marine Mammal Stranding Center officials in Brigantine

In July 2016, a 30-foot whale (perhaps a finback) was struck by a large cargo ship. The strike went unnoticed by the captain and crew and the whale floated for several days until it resurfaced within Newark Bay, off Jersey City. It’s similar to what took place in May 2014 when a cruise ship heading for New York City struck and dragged a sei whale into the Hudson River. The event went undetected by the captain and crew, and the whale was found long dead and draped over the ship’s bulbous bow while docking. In addition, a dead juvenile blue whale was brought into nearby Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, on the bow of a tanker on March 3, 1998 unseen by captain and crew.

Big ships moving quickly in the ocean often have the potential to hit giant sea animals, and not take notice except for maybe a slight jolt within all the pitching and rolling amid ocean waves. The nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) tells us that large passing ships are unlikely to see a whale or may be unable to divert course if they do see one. In addition, a large ship creates something called a “bow null effect” blocking the engine noise by the bow or front of the ship, creating a quiet zone towards the face of the vessel, and leaving a whale unaware of the pending threat. Many times a whale will not even hear or see the bow of an approaching large vessel until it is too late.

After being struck by a ship, a whale will sometimes perish right away at sea. The carcass will then float closer to the coast, but the cause of death will not be so easily determined due to decomposition and being eaten by sharks and other hungry animals. On October 1, 2019 a dead humpback whale was found floating near Jones Beach, Long Island. The whale was found decomposing approximately 1.5 miles offshore near Jones Beach and the cause of death was unknown. It’s an event that’s comparable to what took place on August 14, 2019 when a dead juvenile humpback whale washed ashore at Sandy Hook National Recreation Area in New Jersey. The body of the approximately 25 to 30 foot whale was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine the exact cause of death. It’s likely, though, both whales died to human activity, since most deaths of whales in the past 40 years have been caused by humans, either ship strikes or entanglement by fishing gear, as reported by Daniel Cressey in 2012, Scientific American magazine.

In addition, we know that dead whales will sink in the water after some time at the surface, but just like people a carcass may re-float following enough decay, especially when gases from decomposition make the remains of a body buoyant. It may be difficult to assign an exact cause of death for a badly decomposing whale, even so there is not many causes of death for juvenile whales, on the whole dying in the same area with lots of ship and boat traffic.

Sadly, whales getting hit by boats and ships is nothing new. A total of 111 collisions and 57 near-misses by boats and yachts were identified between 1966 and 2010, the majority of which (75 per cent) were reported between 2002 and 2010 according to Yachting World magazine in 2015.

But now there has been a noticeable increase in dead whales along the east coast, including the Jersey Shore. So much so that federal wildlife officials have taken notice.

Since January 2016, elevated humpback whale mortalities have occurred along the Atlantic coast from Maine through Florida. According to NOAA Fisheries, this event has been declared an “Unusual Mortality Event,” which is defined as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."

In New Jersey between 2016 and 2019 there have been a total of 9 humpback whale strandings. In New York there have been 21 with nearby Delaware having 7, Rhode Island with 5 and Massachusetts having 18. Partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the whales. Of the whales examined, about 50 percent had evidence of human interaction, either ship strike or entanglement. Of course, some whales struck by ships might also have sunk to the bottom of the ocean and will go unreported.

Evidence of vessel interactions, such as propeller wounds (long parallel deep slashes or cuts into the blubber on the back or severed tails) or blunt trauma injuries with fractured skulls, jaws or vertebrae would be indicative of a ship or boat strike. The injuries sometimes can be even worse, and the sight can be pretty disturbing to look at. The blunt force of a large ship hitting a whale can be so hard and strong that a whale’s entire stomach will get pushed out of its mouth. The bow or front section of a boat’s hull is like a battering ram, easily smashing the bones and body of a sleeping or tired whale, or another unsuspecting sea creature.

So, what if anything can be done to help decrease the probability of whales getting hit by a ship near the Jersey Shore. Here are some potential solutions that can happen if people work together:

  1. Ships need to Slow down! Just like vehicles around a school zone or on crowded city streets, ships and other vessels need to slow down in areas where there is a high probability of marine mammal activity (especially feeding areas). Research shows that boats and ships that operate at slower speeds (10kts or less) significantly reduce the risk of mortally wounding a whale if struck. Slowing down may also provide the animal with an increased reaction time to move away from the vessel.  An example where this has worked well is in the St. Lawrence River estuary in Canada. Ship pilots significantly reduced their speed across the area, with 72 percent of the transits in 2014 occurring at speeds less than 13.6 miles per hour. Since 2014, there have been no or few whale strikes reported.
  2. Technology needs to be in place that warns a ship’s captain of a potential strike. In 2017, the Benioff Ocean Initiative, a team of marine biologists and technologists from universities and research labs around the United States, received a 1.5 million grant to develop a system that detects endangered blue whales using acoustic and thermal sensors and sends alerts to nearby boat captains. The goal is to reduce collisions between big ships and the world's largest animal in California's Santa Barbara Channel, a historical hotspot for encounters that frequently prove fatal for the whales. Additional funds need to be devoted to developing this technology on both coasts of the United States.
  3. A Warning System for Whales. In Cape Cod Bay, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established a warning system for whales in the navigation corridor to Boston. Buoys are equipped with hydrophones capable to pick up the calls of whales. If a whale is detected, a signal is sent to ships so they can slow down in a particular sector. This activity should be expanded to other waters along the east coast.
  4. Lookouts on ships. Ship captains can also post lookouts to scan waters for nearby marine mammal or sea turtle activity. If the lookout sees a spout, tail, or breaching whale, the person can tell the captain to slow down. Some whales may dive for 20 minutes or more while searching for food. If one whale is seen, many more could be close by - maybe too close to a boat and its spinning propellers and powerful steel hull.

The struggle continues to save the whales. Although many people think we saved these great leviathans in the 1970s, whales still face countless threats today. A major cause of death for whales is ship strikes. These massive animals are at high risk of being hit by large, fast moving ships. Let’s not make this action another demise for whales. We must keep our coastal waters safe and act responsible while boating and fishing. We must implement stronger speed restrictions for commercial and industrial ships and create new technologies to help whales from being struck by a ship. If we do these things and more, these magnificent aquatic creatures will be able to flourish along the Jersey Shore and surrounding waters for many generations.

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by Joe Reynolds