US Navy

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Marine Species Monitoring

Tagging and Tracking of Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales in Florida Waters

Introduction & Objectives

The endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) migrates to coastal waters off Florida and Georgia during the winter months. These winter calving grounds are adjacent to the U.S. Navy’s planned undersea warfare training range (USWTR) off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. Aerial and vessel based visual surveys and passive acoustic monitoring supported by NOAA, Navy, and the State of Florida are currently being used to detect right whales in the coastal waters of Florida and Georgia, as well as at the site of the planned USWTR. These only provide information about animal locations at a single point in time. Currently there are few data on the movement patterns of individuals, including movement rates both in North/South and East/West directions, dive depths, and dive durations.  The vocalization rates of individual right whales on these wintering grounds are also poorly understood. 

We will be conducting a targeted tagging program to fill in these knowledge gaps, by collecting horizontal movement, dive profile and vocal behavior from individual whales.  These data are important to inform monitoring and mitigation techniques and to increase our understanding of the potential for disturbance to right whales as the USWTR construction and training operations commence.

Technical Approach

Non-invasive suction cup tags (anticipated tag duration from 1-36 hours) including fastloc GPS technology, time depth recorders (TDR), 3-D movement measurement, and acoustic recording capability will be attached to right whales of all ages and sexes to assess their movement patterns.  Focal follows will also be conducted to gather additional behavioral information.  Two vessels will be used to conduct this work:  We will operate primarily from the R/V Stellwagen and R/V RT Barber, which have previously been used successfully for right whale work.  During good weather we will launch a small boat from the Stellwagen to conduct the tagging and some of the focal follow data collection. Field work is being conducted under NMFS Permit #14791 issued to Dr. Doug Nowacek.

Progress & Results

The field team, consisting of members from Duke University, Syracuse University, and WHOI have conducted field work out of Fernandina Beach, Florida during February 2014, February-March 2015, and February-March 2016.

In February 2014 weather conditions were suitable for tagging operations on 11 days, and right whales were located on 9 of these days. Tags were successfully deployed on right whales on seven occasions.  Individual whales showed variation in movement patterns along the coastline. Only one tag was successfully deployed on a single right whale during 8 days of field effort in 2015 due to a very low number of animals being present on the winter grounds.  Despite the lack of new data, additional work and analyses were undertaken focused on sound propagation modeling, creating and testing algorithms for detection and classification of right whale calls, and individual distinctiveness of right whale calls.

Analyses of the data, including dive statistics and acoustic data, are ongoing and are being conducted under the supervision of Dr. Nowacek and Dr. Parks with students and technicians in their laboratories. Preliminary results of this work have been reported at US Navy’s Marine Species Monitoring Program Technical Review meetings (2015, 2016) as well as at North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan Southeast Implementation team meetings.

Year 1 (2014) field season summary and technical progress report

Year 2 (2015) technical progress report

Year 3 (2016) technical review