Little Leviathans in NY Harbor

Little Leviathans in New York Harbor

By Joe Reynolds, Exc Director Save Coastal Wildlife

People have long had a fascination and attraction to whales. Similar to California’s Giant Sequoias, whales tell the story of America and our conflicted relationship with nature. Whales are big, beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring, inquisitive, intuitive, smart and sentient.  Simply put, whales are awesome!

Perhaps one of the best ways to catch a glimpse of a whale is aboard a whale-watching cruse, especially from a reputable whale watching company that follows a code of conduct designed to minimize impacts to marine mammals. It can be the perfect way to celebrate and appreciate cetaceans intimately and in action in a communal atmosphere. With other people onboard to howl, huff, and gasp we discover a whale’s movements, motion, meaning, and why saving species of whales is really about saving the human species. 

Breaching is a common behavior among humpback whales. There are many reasons why humpback whales breach, depending on the situation, but some of the most common thoughts include to have a look around at what is going on above the water, trying to remove parasites, scratch an itch, or to stun prey.

Breaching is a common behavior among humpback whales. There are many reasons why humpback whales breach, depending on the situation, but some of the most common thoughts include to have a look around at what is going on above the water, trying to remove parasites, scratch an itch, or to stun prey.

But you don’t need to drive all the way up to New England to enjoy an awe-inspiring whale-watching cruise. All you have to do is just make your way to Queens, New York.

 Hop aboard the American Princess, a boat that departs from Riis Landing in Rockaway, Queens in New York City. Cruses are offered from May to October every year. You can make reservation at their website https://americanprincesscruises.com/

 Wait! How can whales be found near New York City, the largest city in the United States? Local waters are far too polluted and just filled with seagulls and jellyfish anyway, right? Can whales really be seen and survive around New York Harbor?

 Yes! According to Paul L. Sieswerda, President of Gotham Whale, an environmental non-profit organization based in New York City and dedicated to advocating for, and educating people about whales and marine mammals of New York Harbor. Gotham Whale has been documenting whales feeding in the area since 2011.

Paul confirmed, during a recent talk at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ, the obvious. About 8 out of 10 people who live in New York City or nearby in New Jersey are unaware there are whales actively swimming and feeding in surrounding waters. 

After centuries of over-hunting, over-fishing and hideous water quality, local water quality is improving and the whales are returning to New York City, Long Island and the Jersey Shore. This is due, in part, to the positive effects of three federal laws created by the U.S Congress in the 1970s: 1) the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 which gave EPA the authority to implement water quality standards and pollution control programs including controlling point source pollution around New York City. 2) the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which protects all marine mammals from harassment, hunting, killing and other perilous activities, and 3) the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which has worked to save several endangered marine mammals including blue whales and humpback whales. Many state and local jurisdictions also have laws to protect marine mammals and endangered species. 

As a result, whales are swimming in and near New York Harbor, as they did in past centuries. Last year Paul counted more than 500 whales. 

Most whales seen by Paul and other people with Gotham Whale have been humpback whales. The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale. Adults range in size from 39 to 55 feet in length and weigh up to approximately 40 tons with females being slightly larger than males. Their life span is at least 50 years, maybe even more than 100 years. It’s an intelligent and an acrobatic animal, often breaching and slapping the water. 

According to NOAA Fisheries, humpbacks eat prey by taking large gulps of water. Below the mouth are 12 to 36 throat grooves that expand to hold the water. The whales have 270 to 400 fringed overlapping black plates hanging down from each side of the upper jaw, called baleen plates. The baleen filters the water, and the blowholes on the whale's back expel excess water, but the fish remain in the whale for digestion.

According to NOAA Fisheries, humpbacks eat prey by taking large gulps of water. Below the mouth are 12 to 36 throat grooves that expand to hold the water. The whales have 270 to 400 fringed overlapping black plates hanging down from each side of the upper jaw, called baleen plates. The baleen filters the water, and the blowholes on the whale's back expel excess water, but the fish remain in the whale for digestion.

Humpbacks are frequently seen about a mile or so offshore from New York Harbor. They feed alone or occasionally cooperatively with two or three other humpback whales lunging into schools of fish. 

Paul told the audience at Brookdale that near the mouth of New York Harbor is a near-perfect place for whales to feed. Nutrients and organic matter coming into the harbor from the Hudson and Raritan Rivers creates food for vast populations of plankton, this in turn attracts large schools of Atlantic Menhaden or bunker, a species of schooling fish in the herring family. Large schools of menhaden attract the whales for a fatty fishy meal. Bunker is a favorite food of many larger predators, including humpback whales. 

Surprisingly, most humpbacks observed by Paul in the past 10 years have been juvenile humpback whales, little leviathans. He’s not sure why, but current thinking is that juveniles or young humpback whales swim to New York Harbor to feed so they don’t have to compete with adult humpback whales for menhaden, herring or other aquatic food resources up north near Cape Cod. Juvenile whales have the harbor to themselves. 

Eventually, humpback whales will leave the waters of North Atlantic during the fall, swimming practically non-stop for nearly 6 to 8 weeks to reach their tropical winter home, where adults will mate, give birth, and nurture their calves.

Humpback whales will spend part of the year in warmer Caribbean waters, especially in the Humpback Whale Sanctuary in the Dominican Republic. The other part of the year is spent feeding all the time on fish and plankton in cooler waters in the North Atlantic, particularly at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts & Maine, and up the coast to the Canadian Maritime provinces and Newfoundland. 

Humpback whales are identified by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes; each one is different just like a fingerprint.

Humpback whales are identified by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes; each one is different just like a fingerprint.

Humpback whales do not feed in tropical waters. There simply isn’t enough food for them. The warm, clear waters of the Caribbean Sea don’t have the abundance of nutrients that are found in the North Atlantic, so the whales including juvenile humpback whales must swim north to feed from May to November. The whales obtain all their nutritional needs during this time. 

Breeding and calving occurs from approximately December to around mid-April in tropical waters. Females give birth to a single calf. Calves remain with their mothers for approximately one year, and then the little leviathans are on their own. Each humpback whale has its own migration route, with some swimming closer to the coast than others.

Unfortunately, juvenile humpback whales have a wide variety of threats due to the lack of familiarity with urban aquatic environments, but they still maintain their large size and slow speed like adult whales. Juvenile whales struggle with increased noise from human activity such as drilling and increasing vessel traffic, which can disrupt foraging, masking the sounds whales use to communicate among themselves to locate prey. 

Juvenile humpback whales are also threatened around New York Harbor with vessel strikes and entanglement in marine debris, especially derelict or abandoned fishing gear, sometimes referred to as "ghost gear.” For example, in December 2017, residents on Long Island found a 20-ton, 31-foot carcass of a dead female adolescent humpback whale. It was the14th large whale to wash ashore dead on Long Island that year. In June 2018, a 27-foot dead humpback whale washed ashore on a beach in Queens, New York, in Breezy Point. A necropsy revealed that the three to five-year-old whale appeared to have been hit by a boat, and it was fifth large whale that the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society had responded that year that showed evidence of blunt force trauma consistent with being struck by a boat.

According to Paul another important threat is the loss of menhaden or bunker. “The whales of New York City feed directly on these fish,” he said, “and are the reason for the comeback of marine mammals to our area.” Unfortunately, Paul emphasized there is an industrial fishery for menhaden that is diminishing the population of this fish. The Omega Protein Corporation, operating out of Reedville, Virginia, nets menhaden on an industrial scale for the “reduction fishery” where the fish are turned into animal feed and additives for a myriad of products. The Omega Fleet consists of large “factory” ships close to 200 feet long, filled with nets. The nets scoop up the menhaden and vacuum them into containers until the ships are filled with fish before returning to Virginia.

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Andy Newman wrote a September 13, 2018 article in The New York Times entitled, New York’s Whales Love Bunker. So Do Fishing Boats. Conflict Ensues, about the loss of menhaden and the growing threat to feeding humpback whales around New York Harbor. Just about every summer, industrial fishing boats with large nets from Omega Protein travel 4 to 5 miles off the coast of the Jersey Shore, sometimes as far north as the Rockaways in New York City, to pull up millions of pounds of bunker. He writes:

“The catches, in federal waters outside the three-mile state line, are perfectly legal. Omega, which grinds and refines the oily, bony fish into pet food and fish-oil capsules and employs 125 fishermen, is authorized to harvest about 500 million menhaden (or about 340 million pounds) this year — over 70 percent of the total menhaden catch, according to quotas set by regulators.”

The problem as explained by Paul is that the Omega Fleet threatens the local population of bunker in the area where whales feed. They need to find other fishing grounds at least 20 miles from the entrance of NY Harbor. Otherwise, with no food, the juvenile whales will be forced to swim north and compete with adult whales for nourishment. 

“Gotham Whale,” Paul stated, “is trying to raise public awareness because the legislative, regulation, and policy approach is not working. The limit of the total allowable catch by industrial fishers is, in our opinion, too high.”

To help, please check out Gotham Whale’s website at www.gothamwhale.comfor more information and ways to take action to help save menhaden, an important source of food for juvenile humpback whales feeding around New York Harbor. In addition, join Paul and other members of Gotham Whale onboard the American Princess this summer to look for whales and other marine mammals roaming coastal waters. 

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Although much publicity have been given to the plight of whales around the world and threats to their survival, not much has yet been told about the plight of whales around New York Harbor. Governments are often slow to respond, but people becoming actively involved can make a positive difference to protect the whales, including juvenile whales, and other marine mammals that call the waters off New York and New Jersey home. 

To find more information about coastal wildlife, including whales, please visit the website for Save Coastal Wildlife, a wildlife conservation nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about the preservation and protection of coastal wildlife along the Jersey Shore at www.savecoastalwildlife.org