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Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference Document 10-07

North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) and Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) 2009 Results Summary

C Khan1, T Cole2, P Duley1, A Glass1, J Gatzke1
1Integrated Statistics 16 Sumner Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543
2Northeast Fisheries Science Center 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543

Web version posted June 15, 2010

Citation: Khan C, Cole T, Duley P, Glass A, Gatzke J. 2010. North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) and Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS). Northeast Fish Sci Cent Ref Doc. 10-07; 6 p. Available from: National Marine Fisheries Service, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543-1026, or online at:

Information Quality Act Compliance: In accordance with section 515 of Public Law 106-554, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center completed both technical and policy reviews for this report. These predissemination reviews are on file at the NEFSC Editorial Office.

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North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Surveys (NARWSS)

The North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey (NARWSS) is a NOAA Fisheries program which locates and records the seasonal distribution of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) off the northeastern coast of the United States.  All NARWSS flights conducted in 2009 followed randomized systematic track lines within nine primary survey blocks: Cashes Ledge, Franklin Basin, Georges Basin, Georges Shoal, Great South Channel, Howell Swell, Jeffreys Ledge, Jordan Basin, and Stellwagen Bank.  In addition, two supplemental survey blocks were added this year: Roseway Basin and Stellwagen Sanctuary.  There were no broad scale surveys conducted in 2009, as there have been in the past[1].  During 2009, there were 66 surveys totaling 330 flight hours, including the relocation of a right whale carcass during one flight (Table 1).  See Table 2 for a comparison of NARWSS flights, flight hours, and right whale sightings across years.  There were 584 right whales detected within survey blocks (Table 1), and an additional 38 right whales sighted during transits to or from survey areas.  The locations of right whales and survey lines flown are displayed by season in Figures 1a-1d.

Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS)

In 2009, the Right Whale Sighting Advisory System (RWSAS) was re-engineered to support new regulations to reduce the threat of ship collisions with right whales (50 CFR Part 224).  The regulations establish speed restrictions of 10 knots for all vessels length 65 ft (19.8 m) or greater within Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs).  The SMAs encompass high-risk areas along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard where right whale sightings predictably and consistently occur each year[2].  When three or more right whales are sighted outside of SMAs, Dynamic Management Areas (DMAs) are put in place for two weeks that encompass an area commensurate to the number of whales present.  Mariners are notified of DMAs via email, the internet, Broadcast Notice to Mariners (BNM), NOAA Weather Radio, and the Mandatory Ship Reporting system (MSR), and are requested to reduce their speed when transiting through DMAs.  Unlike SMAs, compliance is voluntary for DMAs.   The DMA program was initiated in December 2008 (concurrent with implementation of SMA regulations), and NARWSS reports generated three DMAs before the end of that year.  In 2009, 19 DMAs were triggered by validated reports, of which 13 came from NARWSS.  The RWSAS continued collecting sighting reports from sources including aerial surveys, shipboard surveys, whale watch vessels, and opportunistic sources (Coast Guard, commercial ships, fishing vessels, and the general public).  The most common source of reports in 2009 was aerial surveys (215 reports - 48%; see Table 3).  Most sightings were in the Northeast (New York through Maine), where the number of reports per month ranged from 6 in August and September, to 116 in April (Figure 2a and Figure 3).  Most reports in the Mid-Atlantic region (New Jersey through North Carolina) were from opportunistic sources (Figure 2b and Figure 3).  Most reports in Canadian waters were from shipboard surveys (Figure 2a and Figure 3).  Due to the frequency of acoustic detections, logging them as part of the RWSAS was discontinued in 2009.  Instead, public and shipping interests were provided links to the automated acoustic detection websites maintained by the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology[3].

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