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The Gulf Of Maine Is Warming, And Its Whales Are Disappearing

Oct 6, 2019
Originally published on October 6, 2019 1:41 pm

Each summer for the last two decades, Jim Parker has readied his small whale watch boat, and made a business out of ferrying tourists out into the cool blue waters of the Gulf of Maine.

For years, it was steady work. The basin brimmed with species that whales commonly feed on, making it a natural foraging ground for the aquatic giants. Whales would cluster at certain spots in the gulf, providing a reliable display for enchanted visitors to the coastal community of Milbridge, Maine.

But lately, the whales have been harder and harder to find. Waters in the gulf have been warming, sending the whales' food supply searching for cooler temperatures. The whales have gone with them. Some days this summer, Parker says he didn't spot a single one. Business fell 20%, forcing him to cut his season short.

To help make ends meet, he's been leading nature tours instead of whale watching expeditions. It's gotten so bad, Parker says, that he and his partner have considered moving away from whale watching.

"What I don't want to do is put a half dozen people on the boat, have them all excited about going out and seeing whales when I know there's not one there," Parker says.

At a time of accelerating changes in the environment brought on by climate change, Parker's struggles are a reflection of how coastal communities, their ecosystems and the businesses that rely on them, are being forced to adapt. It's a challenge that is only growing more urgent, according to a dire report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month. The report found that over the last 25 years or so, oceanic warming has nearly doubled.

The changes have been especially pronounced in the Gulf of Maine, where data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch shows that waters are warming faster than 99% of the global ocean.


Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Temperatures in the gulf — which stretches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia — are climbing for two principal reasons, researchers say. First, rising air temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations are causing oceanic warming worldwide. The U.N. says this warming has given way to a new phenomenon in the oceans: marine heat waves. Second, ice melt in Greenland is pumping fresh water out of the arctic, which has disturbed normal ocean currents in the region.

Andrew Pershing, the chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, says these changing patterns are bringing warmer currents into the area, which disrupts whales' prey: herring and sandlace fish, among other species.

"As we see this food web start to become disrupted and start to change, we're seeing changes in where the whales are feeding," Pershing says. As a result, whales are moving further north toward Canada in search of food — a shift that comes with a dangerous set of consequences.

With their changing migration patterns, the whales are increasingly navigating waters that haven't yet been adapted to protect them — and they're dying because of it.

So far this year, at least nine North Atlantic right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence along the Canadian coast, according to NOAA. Two years ago, 12 right whales died in Canadian waters, with five additional deaths coming along the United States East Coast. Fishing net entanglements and boat strikes were the primary causes of those deaths, according to data from NOAA.

The longer journey also has implications for whales' reproductive rates.

"From a whale's perspective it matters greatly," says Sean Todd, a researcher at the College of the Atlantic, where he studies the diets of whales in the Gulf of Maine. It matters, he says, because whales have a particular "energy budget" that sustains them while migrating long distances.

"If you increase the energy expenditure a whale has to undergo to get to its food, then the animal does not meet its calorific needs. And if it's a female, that could very likely result in a failure of pregnancy."

Today, there are around 400 remaining North Atlantic right whales in the world, according to an estimate by NOAA. Of those, less than 95 are breeding females.

Todd warns that shifting migration patterns could mean "lower reproductive rates" for whales in the gulf, which risks bringing their populations "down to endangered status."

While animals can adapt to climate change, that process can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years, Todd says — not nearly fast enough to keep up with the rapidly accelerating effects of climate change.

Today, Todd says the Gulf of Maine resembles the oceanic equivalent of a desert. In the old days, there might have been 1,000 whales in the waters of the Gulf of Maine, he adds. Now, it's a fraction of that.

"That's really difficult for me to be out here now, and see a flat ocean with almost no biological activity readily observable," says Todd. "Five, 10 years ago, I could be out here and we would have our pick of animals to work with."

Parker has seen these changes too, and while he agrees "100% the climate is changing," he says he's still not convinced that it's warming.

"If you look back in history you can't find a 10-year period in history, we didn't have climate change of some form," Parker says.

The overwhelming scientific consensus refutes this notion, and as Pershing says, it gives the U.S. an "imperative" to figure out how to adapt to the "rapidly changing ocean." In the coming years, he predicts that places ranging from Norway, to Alaska and the Caribbean will also be subject to dramatic oceanic shifts.

But "it's only in the United States where climate change has become a politically based argument," according to Todd.

"Will we save the Gulf of Maine? I don't know. I don't know if we can or not. But I hope we can save the planet."

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A new U.N. report says the Earth's oceans are heating up quickly, causing, in some cases, ocean heat waves for the first time. One place where that's happening - the Gulf of Maine. So that's where we begin our story.

It's a glorious September morning in Bar Harbor, Maine. The sky is a cloudless blue. In fact, it is a perfect day for one of this place's signature draws - whale watching. I'm standing underneath a pagoda with a huge wooden carved humpback whale on it where people are lined up to get onto boats heading out into the Gulf of Maine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You guys are here for the whale watch, right?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, yeah. You guys excited?



GARCIA-NAVARRO: The very first people in line are Kurt Demann from North Carolina and his adult daughter Caryn Loften, who lives in Louisiana.

KURT DEMANN: Last year, I was in Depoe Bay, Ore., and this whale breached right in front of us. And I never got a chance to thank that whale for doing that, so I'm now up here looking for him so I can...


DEMANN: ...I can thank him for doing that. That was pretty nice.

CARYN LOFTEN: I just wanted to be able to see - it's something I've never seen before, and hopefully we'll see one today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But they may just be out of luck. The odds of seeing whales in the Gulf of Maine have dropped significantly as its waters have warmed. This story is part of a series about how East Coast communities have been adapting to climate change. And in Maine, the people that live on - and the animals that live in - the Gulf are in the midst of that adaptation, grappling with accelerating shifts in their environment.

About 90 minutes up the coast, Jim Parker runs a small whale watch boat, the Susan Jane, named after his wife.

JIM PARKER: Thirty-three-foot, typical Downeast lobster boat. There's a V back to about where the wheel is...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Parker has been on these waters since he was a child. He's now in his 70s, and he's got a white beard and the gait of a man who spends a lot of time on a rocking boat. Finding whales used to be easy in the summer. They would cluster at certain spots, providing a reliable display for enchanted tourists. He shows us his logbooks from the last 15 years.

PARKER: OK. See. Going out the 29, I went out for whales. I had two humpbacks. Like on August 8, hit thick fog - we found one minke that day in the thick fog.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this year's been very different. The whales aren't showing.

PARKER: That one right there, I had no whales.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Parker says his business is down 20% this year, and he's shifted to doing nature tours to make ends meet, looking for wildlife like puffins instead of whales.

PARKER: What I don't want to do is put a half a dozen people on the boat, have them all excited about going out and see whales when I know there's not one there. I want them to have a good time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's been talking with his partner about shifting his business away from whale watching, but he's not necessarily on board with the U.N.'s warning about a warming climate.

PARKER: If you look back in history, you can't find a 10-year period in history we didn't have climate change of some form.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you don't believe when scientists say this is warming and the climate is changing, and this might be a permanent thing that happens?

PARKER: I agree a hundred percent the climate is changing, OK? I'm not convinced that it's warming.

ANDREW PERSHING: Really, since about 2010, 2012, the warming signal in our region has just exploded, and that's become a big part of our research.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew Pershing is the chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. He would tell Jim Parker that climate change is melting glaciers in Greenland and sending ice and freshwater out of the Arctic, altering currents flowing into the Gulf of Maine. The result is a disruption of food sources for some species, especially whales.

PERSHING: Humpbacks are one of the ones you're most likely to see if you go out whale watching. They're, you know, very showy. They're coming here to feed. They're coming here to eat things like herring, like sand lance, these sort of small, silvery fish that are right at the middle of the food chain. We also have right whales, which are an endangered species, and they're coming to feed even lower on the food chain.

So as we're - see this food web start to become disrupted and start to change, we're seeing changes in where the whales are feeding, and we're seeing changes in when they're coming to feed.

TOBY STEPHENSON: So we're located here at Mount Desert Island. We're going to be going first south 20, 25 miles. There was a whale sighted yesterday.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Toby Stephenson is the skipper of the Osprey, a research vessel for the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. He's taking us out with Sean Todd, a foraging ecologist studying the diet of the whales in the Gulf. And we have to travel farther to find them now. For people looking for whales - either tourists on the Susan Jane or us on the Osprey - Sean Todd says that's an inconvenience, but...

SEAN TODD: From a whale's perspective, it matters greatly, right? These animals have designed over evolutionary time to have a certain energy budget to get to certain places and do what they need to do. So if you increase the energy expenditure a whale has to undergo to get to its food, then the animal does not meet its calorific needs. And if it's a female, that can very likely result in a failure of pregnancy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Animals can adapt to climactic changes, says Todd. But humans are changing the environment so quickly, the whales simply can't catch up.

TODD: We're going to see lower reproductive rates across the species. And, you know, that'll bring the population back down to endangered status, perhaps.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The day's goal on the Osprey is to dart a whale using a crossbow and extract a tiny bit of skin and blubber that can tell Todd what the whale's eating. It's year two of a five-year study which will then be compared to research from 15 years ago. But the hours roll on without a sighting.


STEPHENSON: You didn't see much?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I haven't seen anything, no.


STEPHENSON: Yeah. There was something sighted not too far from here yesterday, but not super promising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sean Todd compares these waters now to a desert.

TODD: There aren't even seabirds, and we often use seabird activity as a proxy for how productive the water is, how much plankton there is around. So now we're going to move on to our next ground...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, in the old days, there might have been a thousand whales in these waters. Now there's about one-tenth of that.

TODD: That's really difficult for me to be out here now and see, you know, a flat ocean with almost no biological activity readily observable but know maybe five, 10 years ago, I could be out here, and we would have our pick of animals to work with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The story we're doing is about adaptation, and it strikes me that we're in the midst of something happening here right now where the animals are adapting and the humans are adapting to something that is underway. Is that how it feels to you?

TODD: Absolutely. I guess when you're in the middle of that, you're not quite sure what's going on. So things have been steadily changing, you know? And every year, you readjust your expectations. And so one year, you might go, well, this year wasn't great, but thank goodness it was better than last year. But then you - when you think about it on a longer scale of decades, this area has changed tremendously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute says what's happening in these waters is just the beginning, and that could be a good thing.

PERSHING: We have had challenges that other ecosystems - places like Norway, Alaska, you know, the Caribbean - that are going to deal with in the future. And it gives us the imperative to figure out, how do we deal with this rapidly changing ocean? But then we have the potential to say, look; we've learned this here, and here's some ways that other regions might be able to get ahead of the curve in a way that we maybe didn't have that opportunity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back on the Osprey, Sean Todd says it's imperative that the people who live and work on these waters also need to adapt politically and act on the very real changes they're experiencing right now.

TODD: It's only in the United States where climate change has become a politically based argument. You know, if you're on the left, you believe one thing. If you're on the right, you believe another thing, which is just, to me, so extraordinary because outside the United States, the question has been solved. It's not a question anymore. We have done this, and it's got to be rectified. And will we save the Gulf of Maine? I don't know. I don't know if we can or not, but I hope we can save the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "SLEEP STATE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.