Endangered right whales found where there were none

May 21st, 2009 - 1:31 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, May 21 (IANS) Scientists have documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales with the help of underwater hydrophones that can pick up sounds from hundreds of kilometres away.
The discovery is particularly important because it is in an area where these whales were thought to be extinct and one that may be opened to shipping if the melting of polar ice continues, as expected, said researchers.

Scientists from Oregon State University (OSU) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are unsure of exactly how many whales were in the region, which is off the southern tip of Greenland and site of an important 19th-century whaling area called Cape Farewell Ground.

But they recorded more than 2,000 right whale vocalisations in the region from July through December of 2007.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that… a remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger, assistant professor at OSU Hatfield Marine Science Centre in Newport and chief project scientist.

“We don’t know how many right whales there were in the area,” Mellinger added. “They aren’t individually distinctive in their vocalisations. But we did hear right whales at three widely spaced sites on the same day, so the absolute minimum is three. Even that number is significant because the entire population is estimated to be only 300 to 400 whales.”

Only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, where they had been hunted to near extinction prior to the adoption of protective measures, said an OSU release.

The results were presented this week at the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.

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