Fishermen working with scientists, U.S. and Canadian citizens, French and English speakers, ships and planes, cameras, and plankton nets and gliders. The 2018 field season in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has been marked by intense collaboration and interdisciplinary work. Boundaries between nations and disciplines blurred and dissolved in the quest to study the North Atlantic right whale. After the “perfect storm” of 2017, with unprecedented levels of mortality due to entanglements and ship strikes, 2018 just had to be different.

The government of Canada employed slow-down zones for ships in the northern Gulf and closures for fisheries when whales started showing up. Fishing was tough this year, with delays due to ice and then closures due to whales. Clearly, fishermen need to be part of the entanglement solution, but until now right whales hadn’t really been on their radar as an issue. Although we know it is not new for right whales to be in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there are more now than in recent years and there has also been expanded effort into the lucrative snow crab fishery. To study the North Atlantic right whale, and to ensure the species’ survival, we need all hands on deck, all knowledge pooled, and everyone working together.

Martin, the captain of the F/V Jean-Denis Martin and his brother, Jean-Denis, who served as the mate, could not have been more helpful. They depend on the snow crab fishery and want to be part of the solution to the problem of whale entanglements. As do most of the people of the Acadian Peninsula, they are primarily French-speaking. Our working language on the boat was English, but an added distinctive aspect of this cruise was the interplay of French and English as we worked to understand the movements and behaviors of la baleine noire.

Snow crab vessel Jean Denis-Martin
Image of the snow crab vessel Jean Denis-Martin in the port of Shippagan, New Brunswick, Canada. Photo: Monica Zani/ACCOL

Our chief scientist, Monica Zani from the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, set our track lines each day. We had colleagues in a twin otter plane flying whale surveys from Moncton, with U.S. scientists from NOAA working with scientists from Canada’s  DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans). We used the information gained from these flights to help us decide where to survey. Sometimes we went right for an aggregation of whales, and other times surveyed areas that the plane had not been, looking for new whales.

The top deck of this working fishing vessel was not exactly designed for working whales, but we solved that by acquiring two folding lawn chairs, which worked well up to about sea state 5. When the seas really started to fetch up, tilting issues did occur!

Each morning, we climbed the ladder from the bridge deck, carrying camera boxes, the chairs, binoculars, and swathed in float coats. However, compared with where we work in the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of St. Lawrence is positively balmy. The sea surface temperature is warmer, and July 2018 was unseasonably warm, as it was for much of Canada and the U.S. We often found ourselves working in T-shirts with no use for the copious gear we had brought to stay warm offshore.

Scientist recording from ship top
Megan McOsker works as the data recorder from the top deck. Photo: Monica Zani/ACCOL

The whales!

We pulled the anchor each day about 5:30 a.m., and we were on watch shortly thereafter. Sunset wasn’t until well after 9 p.m. We had a great deal of success working with whales as well as collecting plankton samples from the deep layer on which the whales feed. The Shediac Valley (map) is a special place; the oceanographic features of the valley collect copepods in a dense layer near the bottom. This is why the right whales are here, and Kim Davies of Dalhousie University was thrilled to be getting so many samples, particularly in the presence of actively feeding right whales.  Delphine Durette-Morin and Meg Carr assisted in the sampling with Jean-Denis operating the hauler and ensuring safe deployment and return of the net.

A plankton tow is set by the Dalhousie University team at the start of a sampling station. Photo: Monica Zani/ACCOL.

Scientists and fishermen alike were fascinated with what came up in the haul; copepods for the most part, but also tiny lobsters, halibut, snow crabs, and jellyfish. Monica and Megan McOsker kept watch for whales during the plankton surveys, and we were able to collect many samples with whales nearby.

The entire scientific crew participated in the visual survey for whales and in documenting the whales when we were able to work with them. With this density of right whales, there were bound to be SAGs (surface active groups), and we were fortunate enough to see this fascinating, intense behavior. We particularly had SAGs at sunset, with from three to seven animals.

There was a pronounced absence of right whale calves this past winter, thus it is particularly encouraging to see right whales engaged in anything remotely resembling copulation. Our last SAG of the cruise yielded a precious sample of feces! Bright, red, and floating! Monica spotted it and did not take her eyes off it until we had moved in and were able to collect. Although the poop could have come from any one of the SAG participants, the information on diet, hormones, and genetics is precious nonetheless.

Scientist Scooping Poop
Image 6: With 8 ft. of freeboard, collecting a feces sample was challenging. Photo: Megan McOsker/ACCOL.

We collected a tremendous amount of information about right whales and their prey and habitat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on this first cruise of 2018. We learned from the whales and we learned from each other. The vital importance of photo-identification was apparent, as we are able to track individuals and say much more than simply “the whales are here.” We can additionally use photographs to gather vital information about the health of individual right whales. The visual work from the plane and the ship, together with the acoustic detections from the gliders and sonobuoys, gives us a rich picture of right whale distribution. The plankton surveys and oceanographic studies help us understand why they are there in particular and help us understand a little bit more about the mysteries of right whale movements.

Right Whale
Right whale Catalog #3456 (Clipper) is a reproductive female. She was the focal female in one of the SAGs documented in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Her last (and first) calf was born in 2016. Photo: Delphine Durette-Morin, ACCOL/NEAq/CWI/DAL.

2018 has been a year of great consternation in the right whale world, with a total absence of calves. But summer in the Gulf of St. Lawrence thus far has been extremely hopeful, and we are grateful to all who support this work.

Read more about the 2018 field season.