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New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program

Program Background

Sperm whale photograph taken during the Aerial Survey
A aerial photograph of a pod of sperm whales. (Property
of NYSDEC and the aerial survey contractor,Tetra Tech).
Photo by: Kate Lomac-MacNair

In 2013, the NYSDEC joined with the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) to develop a monitoring program for large whales in the New York Bight. In an effort to determine the most appropriate survey methods, a NYNHP experts workshop (link leaves DEC's website) was convened in January 2014 consisting of 41 stakeholders from academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and state and federal government. With a rapidly changing ocean ecosystem and a multitude of threats, baseline data on large whales in the Bight is essential to successful, informed management. To fill in the data gap for large whales in this area, the workshop concluded that a combination of visual and acoustic surveys was the best method. While there are pros and cons to every type of survey, a monthly aerial survey and year-round passive acoustic survey for three years each will provide the state with the best possible information to make management decisions and develop a long-term monitoring program.

In coordination with the New York Ocean Action Plan, the primary objectives of this monitoring program are:

  • To determine the distribution, relative abundance, seasonality of occurrence, and inter-annual variability of large whale species in the entire New York Bight and within and around shipping lanes
  • Record behavioral data of sighted whales
  • Record sightings of sea turtles (green, Kemp's Ridley, loggerhead, leatherback)

Ultimately, the goal of the Whale Monitoring Program is to better define the presence, distribution, and abundance of large whales and sea turtles in the New York Bight. This information will work to better inform decisions made for marine spatial planning and provide a platform for which a long-term monitoring program can be developed to assist in the application of mitigation measures for activities directly impacting large whales and sea turtles.

Definition of the Area

New York Offshore Planning Area
New York Offshore Planning Area for the New York
Bight Whale Monitoring Program.
(Click the map for a larger image).

The New York Bight (link leaves DEC's website) is defined as the area of ocean from the south shore of Long Island to the continental shelf break, matching the New York Department of State (DOS) Offshore Planning Area (PHOTO). This area is approximately 12,650 square nautical miles and includes state and federal waters. Shipping lanes, high density fishing areas, and offshore wind energy areas are all found within this expanse of ocean. Because of this, monitoring of large whales in the Bight is a priority for NYSDEC.

Species of Whale in the New York Bight

The six large whale species most likely to occur in the NYB are also the most threatened:

Note: the following links leave DEC's website

With the exception of the humpback whale, which was recently delisted from the Endangered Species Act, all large whale species are federally listed as endangered. All six species are also listed as endangered at the State level, with the humpback whale status under review. These species are also listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the New York State Wildlife Action Plan.

As of April 2018, three large whale species are experiencing Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs) (link leaves DEC's website) on the U.S. East Coast. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), a UME is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response." Two focal species, humpback and North Atlantic right whales, are included (see list below).

Large Whale Unusual Mortality Events (UMEs)
Species UME Date Total Deceased Occurred in NY
Humpback whale April 2017 (Leaves DEC's website) 68 10
North Atlantic right whale August 2017 (Leaves DEC's website) 18 (12 Canada, 6 US) 0
Minke whale February 2018 (Leaves DEC's website) 30 7

Coordination with Other Surveys

The Whale Monitoring Program is actively coordinated with other entities conducting surveys in the New York Bight area, including the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), and NOAA. A boat based survey operated by a team from Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, funded by NYSDEC, will also be conducting line transect surveys for marine mammals.

Notifications from groups conducting offshore aerial surveys are sent prior to each survey's start. This is done to ensure the safety of those conducting the surveys and to inform interested parties about the data being collected.

As part of the program, the New York Bight Whale Monitoring Workshop will be held annually for the duration of the three years beginning in June 2018. The workshop's purpose is to provide the results of the Whale Monitoring Program surveys to date and to discuss integration with other ongoing surveys in the area. The meeting will review the methodology used in the surveys, the data collected over the previous year, and the results of all analyses conducted on the cumulative data of each type of survey. Time is dedicated to attendees providing feedback and offering input on subsequent years' methodologies.

Find more information on the surveys occurring in the New York Bight below (all links leave DEC website):

More about New York Bight Whale Monitoring Program: