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United States of America - Gulf of Maine Whale watching contributes to long-term monitoring of whales

History and context

The Gulf of Maine has been a popular whale watching destination since 1975 when a fishing charter company (the Dolphin Fleet) first took passengers from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the whale feeding grounds on the Stellwagen Bank. This marked the inauguration of commercial whale watching on the U.S. East Coast. Today, whale watching in the sanctuary is among New England’s most notable recreational industries1,2.

Dedicated research on whales in the Gulf of Maine also started in the 1970’s.  The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), also based in Provincetown, Massachusetts was one of the first organizations to begin researching whales in the Gulf of Maine. The Center’s whale research had its foundation in commercial whale watching, when CCS scientist, Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, joined the first trips by the Dolphin Fleet.  CCS placed staff on the whale watching vessels to collect data for its research and to simultaneously serve as naturalist guides, enriching tourists’ experiences1.  Other groups followed suit, resulting in a rich partnership of research, education and industry throughout the region.  A data collection methodology was distributed in the 1980s, and a multi-decade community whale-naming process was established to ensure consistent and effective communication about individual whales. 

Many NGOs and whale researchers in the Gulf of Maine have since depended on whale watching data to conduct their work over the past four decades, with some strong, collaborative relationships supporting whale research and conservation.  While many different methods are used by researchers to study whales, photo-identification of individual whales is one of the cornerstones that underpins many other aspects of research.  Individual humpback whales are recognizable over time by the unique colouration on the underside of their tail flukes as well as the serrations on the trailing edges of their flukes and permanent scarring and notches on their dorsal fins3.   The Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog contains photos documenting each time that an individual whale was encountered, accompanied by detailed information for each individual, including age, sex, relatedness to other whales, number of offspring, observed behavior, distribution of sighting locations and evidence for human impacts (e.g. scarring or entanglement events).  Today the catalog includes photographs of approximately 3,000 individuals seen at least once since the 1970s.  An estimated 25% of photographs in the catalogue have been contributed by whale watch collaborators.   The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog (NAHWC), curated by Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic, facilitates studies of humpback whales across all of the feeding and breeding grounds in the North Atlantic.  It also receives significant contributions from whale watching effort in the Gulf of Maine, often through collaborating NGOs.  For example, the NGO Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) contributes photos to both catalogs from its activities and its partnerships with whale watch operators in the Gulf of Maine.

Over the years, whale watching data shared with scientists have contributed to over 75 peer-reviewed papers on aspects of their biology and life history4, including some of the first information on frequency of calving and reproduction5,6; site fidelity and timing of annual arrival on the feeding grounds7; distribution and habitat choice8,9;  and stock identity and movements between feeding and breeding grounds10-12.  Sightings data from whale watching platforms helped to identify Stellwagen Bank as an important area for whales and served as a foundation for its designation as a National Marine Sanctuary.  Whale watch data were also among those used by managers of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to justify the re-routing of shipping traffic away from the highest areas of whale density13 in an effort to better protect endangered right whales. Whale watching data have provided insights into human impacts from aboriginal whaling14, entanglement in fishing gear15-17 and ship strikes16,18.  Whale watching vessels have often also been the first to alert researchers and authorities to whale entanglements or carcasses, allowing research and response teams to be mobilized for action19. Data contributed from whale watching were also used in a study by the Whale Center of New England that examined whether whale watching has had a negative impact on calving and survival rates of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine (the authors concluded that it had not)20. Even directed field studies, including those that use more ‘sophisticated’ methods to understand whale biology and movements, such as genetic analysis21-23 and molecular aging24,25 have benefited from contributions  from whale watching platforms that provide insight into the life history and sighting locations of individual whales. The more complete the sighting histories are for each individual (e.g. the more photographs there are showing where that individual was at various times in its life), the more meaningful results from other studies become.  

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Management and facilitation of research contributions

The growth of the whale watching industry in partnership with research and conservation efforts in the Gulf of Maine has led a high proportion of tours to host naturalist guides to ensure that they include an educational element, and data collection programs in support of science and conservation.  However, as one of the most popular whale watching sites in the world, the sheer volume of tours taking place during the busy summer season can lead to crowding and calls for robust management measures.

The US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued guidelines for whale watching in the Greater Atlantic Region. These voluntary guidelines include approach guidelines and diagrams. They apply to all large whales except Endangered North Atlantic right whales, for which separate Right Whale Approach Regulations have been designed with a legally enforced minimum approach distance of 500 yards (approx. 450 m).

To supplement these measures, in 2009, NOAA Fisheries Service Protected Resources Division, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and the Studds-Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary launched “Whale Sense” to promote responsible whale watching. Whale SENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program offered to commercial whale watching companies in the U.S. Atlantic and Alaska Regions. 

Participating companies agree to:

  • Stick to the regional whale watching guidelines.
  • Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers to have SENSE while watching whales.
  • Notify appropriate networks of whales in distress.
  • Set an example for other boaters.
  • Encourage ocean stewardship.

Upon successful completion of training and evaluation, Whale SENSE businesses receive materials identifying them as active Whale SENSE participants featuring the Whale SENSE logo and the calendar year in which they have been certified.  This label helps tourists to select responsible tour operators, and gives participating businesses a way to help market their tours.

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Lessons learned

The development of whale watching in the Gulf of Maine has served as a positive model for many whale watching industries around the world1 and has been featured in many global reviews of whale watching2,26.  Indeed it has many positive lessons to be shared, but also a few caveats related to different aspects of the industry:

  • Contributions to science and conservation: The experience in the Gulf of Maine (as well as other Whale watching locations like the Antarctic and The Canary Islands) has shown that data collected from whale watching platforms can make significant contributions to the understanding and conservation of whale populations4,27.    Most types of whale research are more effectively conducted from dedicated research vessels that can design field research to address questions in a methodical manner.  In dedicated efforts, research questions, rather than the pressure to please tourists, determine which whales they will approach and how long they will spend with them. Many types of research, such as biopsy sampling, satellite tagging, or prey sampling are not suitable to combine with whale watching operations, as they require research permits from NOAA, precise and tailored vessel approaches, bulky specialist equipment, and/or extended time following individual whales27.  However, running dedicated research vessels is expensive and time consuming.  Whale watching vessels collectively spend more time on the water and run trips with greater frequency than any research vessel could hope to over a particular season.  With training, a GPS, and suitable cameras with good zoom lenses, guides and (in some parts of the world) tourists on whale watching vessels can collect data that can be shared with scientists to make valuable contributions to photo-identification studies and the long-term monitoring of whale populations. 
  • Whale watching as an opportunity for education: The intertwined development of whale research and conservation organisations and whale watching operators in the Gulf of Maine has led to some of the best examples of on-board education available in the industry.  Most of the whale watching operators in the Gulf of Maine have naturalists guiding boats and lecturing whale watchers1, and naturalists working in this area have developed comprehensive guides to on-board education28 that can serve as a resource to others.
  • Regulation of whale watching: The NOAA approach guidelines as well as those promoted through the Whale SENSE programme are voluntary (with the exception of the legally enforced approach limits for Endangered North Atlantic right whales).  A study conducted in 2003-2004 documented high levels of non-compliance with these guidelines, with most operators violating speed and/or approach guidelines during an average of 78% of observed encounters29. The authors concluded that voluntary guidelines were not effective for protecting whales from potential impacts of whale watching activities in the Gulf of Maine.  This is a sobering conclusion, as the authors point out that many factors - including the operators’ long history of collaboration with research and conservation efforts and their positive attitude toward protection of the whales – would have led one to believe that voluntary regulations should be effective in this setting29.

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References

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  1. Hoyt, E. in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals   (eds W. Perrin, B. Wursig, & J.G.M. Thewissen)  1223-1227 (Elsevier, 2009).
  2. O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H. & Knowles, T. Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits. 1-295 (International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth MA, USA, 2009).
  3. Katona, S. K. & Whitehead, H. Identifying Humpback Whales Using their Natural Markings. Polar Record 20, 439-444 (1981).
  4. Robbins, J. A review of scientific contributions from commercial whale watching platforms. Report presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/52/WW9, 10 (2000).
  5. Clapham, P. J. Age at attainment of sexual maturity in humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae. Canadian Journal of Zoology 70, 1470-1472 (1992).
  6. Clapham, P. J. & Mayo, C. A. Reproduction of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) observed in the Gulf of Maine 171-175 (1990).
  7. Clapham, P. J. et al. Seasonal occurrence and annual return of humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the southern Gulf of Maine Canadian Journal of Zoology 71 440-443 (1992).
  8. Weinrich, M. Early experience in habitat choice by humpback Wales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Journal of Mammology 79, 163-170 (1998).
  9. Weinrich, M., Martin, M., Griffiths, R., Bove, J. & Schilling, M. A shift in distribution of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in response to prey in the southern Gulf of Maine. Fishery Bulletin 95, 826-836 (1997).
  10. Clapham, P. et al. Abundance and demographic parameters of humpback whales from the Gulf of Maine, and stock definition relative to the Scotian Shelf. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 5, 13-22 (2003).
  11. Barco, S. G. et al. Population identity of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 4, 135-142 (2002).
  12. Katona, S. K. & Beard, J. A. Population size, migrations and feeding aggregations of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 12), 295-306 (1990).
  13. Sanctuary, S. B. N. M. Shifting the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), 2017).
  14. Robbins, J., Allen, J., Clapham, P. & Mattila, D. Stock identity of a humpback whale taken in a southeastern Caribbean hunt. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 8, 29 (2006).
  15. Knowlton, A. R. et al. Effects of fishing rope strength on the severity of large whale entanglements. Conservation Biology, n/a-n/a, doi:10.1111/cobi.12590 (2015).
  16. Henry, A. G. et al. Serious Injury and Mortality Determinations for Baleen Whale Stocks along the Gulf of Mexico, United States East Coast, and Atlantic Canadian Provinces, 2010-2014. Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference Documents https://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/pub..., 1-57 (2016).
  17. Robbins, J. Scar-based inference into Gulf of Maine humpback whale entanglement: 2010. Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Order number EA133F09CN0253 (2012).
  18. Hill, A. N. et al. Vessel collision injuries on live humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the southern Gulf of Maine. Marine Mammal Science 33, 558-573, doi:10.1111/mms.12386 (2017).
  19. Robbins, J., Kenney, J., Landry, S., Lyman, E. & Mattila, D. in Report to the Scientific Committee of the 59th meeting of the International Whaling Commission Anchorage Alaska, USA. Report number SC/59/BC2.
  20. Weinrich, M. & Corbelli, C. Does whale watching in Southern New England impact humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) calf production or calf survival. Biological Conservation 142, 2931–2940 (2009).
  21. Clapham, P. J. & Palsboll, P. J. Molecular analysis of paternity shows promiscuous mating in female humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae, Borowski). Proceedings: Biological Sciences 264 (1997).
  22. Rosenbaum, H. C. The effect of differential reproductive success on population genetic structure: correlations of life history with matrilines in Humpback Whales of the Gulf of Maine The Journal of Heredity 93 389-399 (2002).
  23. Rew, M. B., Robbins, J., Mattila, D., Palsbøll, P. J. & Bérubé, M. How many genetic markers to tag an individual? An empirical assessment of false matching rates among close relatives. Ecological Applications 21, 877-887, doi:10.1890/10-0348.1 (2011).
  24. Herman, D. P. et al. Age determination of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae through blubber fatty acid compositions of biopsy samples. Marine Ecology Progress Series 192, 277–293 (2009).
  25. Polanowski, A. M., Robbins, J., Chandler, D. & Jarman, S. N. Epigenetic estimation of age in humpback whales. Molecular Ecology Resources 14, 976-987, doi:10.1111/1755-0998.12247 (2014).
  26. Hoyt, E. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits. 1-256 (International Fund For Animal Welfare, London, 2001).
  27. Robbins, J. & Mattila, D. The use of commercial whalewatching platforms in the study of cetaceans: benefits and limitations. . Report presented to the meeting of the Conservation Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/52/WW8, 7 (2000).
  28. Johnson, G. & McInnis, C. in Whale-watching: Sustainable tourism and ecological management   (eds James Higham, Lars Bejder, & Rob Williams) Ch. 10, 128-145 (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  29. Wiley, D. N., Moller, J. C., Pace, R. M. & Carlson, C. Effectiveness of Voluntary Conservation Agreements: Case Study of Endangered Whales and Commercial Whale Watching. Conservation Biology 22, 450-457, doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00897.x (2008).

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