NOAA Fisheries has confirmed that two whales captured in a video by commercial cod fishermen in the Aleutian Islands are indeed North Pacific right whales, the first sighting of this endangered species in winter in the Bering Sea.
The videos were taken by Josh Trosvig, captain of the cod fishing vessel Cerulean, who said he shot the video because the encounter was unique to him.
The federal agency is now working with the U.S. Coast Guard to issue broadcasts to mariners asking them to report any North Pacific right whale sightings as they transit Unimak Pass, which is near where the two right whales in the video were spotted.
This is the primary shipping lane from Northwest American and Canada to China, Japan and South Korea. North Pacific right whales are slow moving and spend most of their time on the surface, so they are vulnerable to ship strikes, NOAA scientists said. They are asking mariners in the vicinity of Unimak Pass and Dutch Harbor to slow vessel speeds to 10 knots or less and keep watch, then maintain at least 500 yards distance from the whales.
North Pacific right whales are distinguished by a wide flat back, no dorsal fin, a V-shaped blow and white bumps on the tops of their heads.
“We are so grateful to the two fishermen and to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who shared photos and video, which enabled us to collect this valuable location and habitat use information,” said Jenna Malek, the North Pacific right whale recovery coordinator for the Alaska Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries.
“I have watched many thousands of whales feeding in the 35 years I have said the North Pacific and Bering, yet none like this,” Trosvig said. “It is important to have a good relationship between industry and the federal and state agencies that monitor the oceans. Hopefully this sighting will add to the knowledge database pertaining to these rare cetaceans.”
Trosviq set photos and video of the two whales to an ADF&G resource manager based in Dutch Harbor, who contacted NOAA Fisheries Colleagues to help identify the whales. “The whales were spotted east of Cape Sarichef,” said Asia Beder, assistant area management biologist, Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, for ADF&G.
Trosvig told her there were about 10 pairs feeding and that their heads were just popping up and floating for a bit. He and others on his boat could see baleen and said the heads consisted mainly of a lower jaw with just a small upper jaw.”
NOAA Fisheries scientist Jessica Crance of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center confirmed that these two whales were indeed North Pacific right whales.
Only an estimated 30 individual right whales are left in the eastern North Pacific population; thus every sighting is considered critical.
“To my knowledge, this is the first sighting of North Pacific right whales in winter in the Bering Sea,” Crance said. “We have acoustic detections, or sound recordings, of whale calls during January but no actual sightings from this time of year.”