We have been leaders in large whale research since 1980, with the North Atlantic right whale program. Our researchers have taken these pioneering research techniques and adapted them to study and protect other vulnerable marine mammals species.
Our scientists are working to identify, characterize, and assess the magnitude of the threats facing marine mammals populations and then work with stakeholders and scientists to develop, test, and implement mitigation strategies that protect marine mammals. These projects have led to conservation solutions that have been applied in other areas and species globally.
Much of our work is focused in the North Atlantic, but our research and conservation efforts extend across the globe. Our knowledge, innovations, and cutting-edge research benefit the world’s oceans.
North Atlantic right whale research
Our scientists have been studying the North Atlantic right whale for more than 35 years. Please visit the Right Whale Research page to learn more about how our scientists are studying and protecting this critically endangered species.
Assessing death and human impacts on Florida manatees
As a coastal species living near humans, Florida manatees are vulnerable to increasing anthropogenic and environmental pressures that are often recognized too late to prevent or contain large die-offs–and challenging to investigate after death. Since 2012, more than 150 manatees have died in the polluted Indian River Lagoon during “unusual mortality events.” Understanding these mortalities is critical because mass die-offs serve as indicators of serious ocean health problems, and provide key information about how environmental changes are impacting manatees and ecosystems. Our program is developing a tool to measure stress and metabolic hormones, as vital biomarkers, in fecal samples. This will provide critical data to actively monitor the health of manatees in the wild–and enhance the opportunity for earlier intervention.
Investigating reproduction and stress physiology in the northern fur seal
In recent decades, the largest breeding colony of northern fur seals has faced drastic, unexplained declines, necessitating the development of new tools to assess fur seal health and reproduction. Our program is developing non-invasive fecal biomarkers to investigate primary threats to fur seals, and examine the impact of various stressors on health and reproduction. This project involves partnerships with other institutions across the U.S. to study the physiology of aquarium-housed, stranded, and wild populations of northern fur seals. These data will advance our knowledge of species physiology, help inform management decisions regarding threats, and can be applied to monitor changes in reproductive and health patterns for vulnerable populations of northern fur seals.
Reducing bycatch of Fransiscana dolphin
The Franciscana dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei) is the most threatened cetacean in the southwestern Atlantic. This species is of special conservation concern given its restricted geographic distribution and its vulnerability to bycatch in at a rate that is currently unsustainable. Bycatch rates of Franciscana throughout its range are unsustainable. This project can identify solutions applicable for the artisanal fishermen who are largely responsible for these high rates. At a global scale, this project has the potential to demonstrate for the first time how to reduce marine mammal bycatch in an artisanal gillnet fishery. The few examples of fisheries in which marine mammal bycatch has been reduced all involve commercial operations in developed countries. The approach in developing countries by necessity has to be less reliant on political will and resources from government agencies to create and enforce fisheries management programs.
Reducing large whale entanglements
The Bycatch Consortium supports evaluation of different bycatch reduction techniques including whale-release rope and “rope-less” fishing. Our research involves field evaluation of prototype technologies off the New England coast in the states of Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. We test these technologies in combination with lab studies and computer modeling. With collaborators, the Consortium has developed computer programs that can simulate encounters between a virtual right whale model in ropes with a variety of parameters including diameter and breaking strength, as well as models that can calculate loads on fishing pot gear of different dimensions, weights, and configurations, as well as under various oceanographic conditions.
Wind farm surveys: assessing effects on oceanic wildlife
Wind farms are coming to the Atlantic Ocean, but there is no data on the effects that large scale wind farm construction and operation has on the distribution, abundance, and behavior of large whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. We have been collecting baseline distribution, abundance, and acoustic data from a large wind energy lease site south of Cape Cod over the past five years, in order to eventually assess the effect large scale wind farms have, if any, on these marine populations.
- Leads: Jessica Redfern, Orla O’Brien
- Program: EcoMap
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument surveys
Located about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is the first and only marine national monument off the continental United States. Although this pristine sanctuary was only established in 2016, its supporters are already facing political and industry opposition. Our researchers are performing surveys of the Monument to bring assessments of the surface fauna up-to-date and to provide empirical evidence in support of this unique “blue park.” To date, these surveys have demonstrated an incredible diversity and abundance of marine mammals in the Northeast Canyons National Monument and support the idea that this area as worthy of complete protection.
- Leads: Jessica Redfern and Orla O’Brien
- Program: EcoMap
Investigating bowhead whale stress responses to Arctic development and climate change
The Arctic is experiencing rapid environmental changes coupled with the effects of increasing human activity associated with resource extraction, and expanded shipping traffic and fishing effort. Assessment of stress responses in bowhead whales, using hormone concentrations in different biological matrices, is a useful tool for understanding and monitoring the impacts of ecological changes (e.g. reductions in sea-ice), and the effects of increasing human-activities. We starting collaborating with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management in 2000 to monitor fecal reproductive and stress hormones in western Arctic bowheads, and more recently, we have been measuring hormones along the growth of baleen plates, thereby providing both short (fecal) and long-term (baleen) approaches to stress monitoring.
Ocean Noise Consortium
Underwater noise from shipping is now recognized as a widespread problem for marine wildlife, with demonstrated negative effects on a variety of taxa, including whales, porpoises and dolphins, fish, and invertebrates. Due to its long-distance travel and the growth of maritime transportation, shipping noise is increasingly viewed as a chronic pollutant that is impacting marine ecosystems, and particularly marine mammals, at an ocean basin scale. However, a recent study has suggested that there are operational and engineering opportunities for increasing efficiencies in the shipping industry while reducing noise. This preliminary work suggests that appropriate information exchange, research and development, and economic and policy analyses can reduce ocean noise and environmental impacts from shipping while also enhancing economic viability. Our objective is to build a consortium of industry, scientific, and nongovernmental partners that identifies and promotes cost-effective measures for reducing the impacts of shipping noise on marine life.
Marine mammal detection technology
It is often difficult to detect large whales under poor-visibility conditions, such as during night, fog, rain, and high winds. By combining state of the art infrared, acoustic, and night-vision technologies with mathematical modeling and innovative software, we hope to find a way to apply this integrated approach to aid in early detection of large marine mammals.
Visit the Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) page to see how the Anderson Cabot Center supports the marine mammal research of conservation leaders in developing countries.