In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

The historic migration patterns of endangered North Atlantic right whales have been changing over the past decade, possibly due to climate change. Federal regulators, meanwhile, are considering drastic measures to protect the whales against deadly entanglement in fishing gear and rope.

So, the question of where and when the whales are swimming in relation to Maine’s lobster fishery is gaining urgency. Now, new efforts are underway to pinpoint their travel habits.

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created a new website that maps almost two decades of work to detect whales off the east coast, via “passive acoustic” recorders set on buoys, on submerged platforms, and on underwater gliders that can zig and zag around the Gulf of Maine for months at a time.

“We’re seeing that you are getting whales. They are calling,” said Genevieve Davis, a research biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole.

Late last year, data retrieved from recorders parked within a few miles of the coast documented right whale calls in state waters near York, near Monhegan Island and near Lubec, Davis said. Those detections were the closest to shore in over a decade.

The data have limitations: detectors aren’t always in the water, the animal could be located anywhere within the recorder’s detection range of roughly six miles, and while a vocalizing whale’s species is comparatively easy to identify, it’s nearly impossible to tell one right whale’s voice from another’s.

“We have a very strict protocol in terms of looking for when we say that right whales are present,” Davis said. “So we have to get three calls within a day of when we say they’re there, and we do that to be confident so that it’s not just a possible call, not just a passing sound. So when we do say they are there on the map, they are definitely there.”

The maps show an abundance of recent, confirmed detections to Maine’s south in Cape Cod Bay, to the east near Nova Scotia and to the north in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence — all areas that have emerged as important feeding grounds over the last decade.

The recent detections nearest to Maine’s coast are much fewer, but detectors at work farther out are finding more.

Zack Klyver, a member of a local advocacy group called the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales, said direct evidence is mounting that the whales are ranging widely, east of Maine’s shoreline.

“I think that’s what the acoustic detections show. Everywhere you look at that map you see signals. Along the coast of Maine there’s less, but as you move out to Mount Desert Rock there’s more, and then you get to Jordan Basin 10 years ago and almost every day there was a signal,” Klyver said.

Klyver said new federal regulations should focus on the risk of fishing-gear encounters where right whales are most clearly traveling with some regularity — east of Maine’s “shelf” waters where depths drop rapidly from 300 to 600 feet deep.

He’s calling for more data, and others in the lobster industry are, too. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said NOAA’s new web portal is a useful contribution to the debate.

“It’s super helpful to be able to visualize it, to see on a chart where they are detecting whales,” McCarron said

The most recent detections, she said, are consistent with the belief that right whales rarely swim near Maine’s coastline, in waters where most of the lobster fleet is active. But more data is needed to get an understanding of what’s actually happening.

“These data haven’t really filled in that gap yet, because either just aren’t enough listening devices out there to inform us of how many whales may be actually present, and co-occur with our fishery,” McCarron said.

It’s been difficult, though, to finance whale-monitoring efforts off Maine because funders were more likely to get a bang for their buck in well-known feeding grounds elsewhere.

“It’s been hard to convince funding agencies to put that kind of money forward for that kind of return,” said Erin Summers, who directs fisheries monitoring and assessment for the state Department of Marine Resources. She said the Maine Community Foundation is granting the department more than $300,000 to deploy seven passive-acoustic monitors at sea.

Summers said the department will provide basic data that can guide more aggressive work — aerial surveillance, boat visits, real-time monitors that can quickly transmit data to shore. Ideally, it will provide credible information to help the fixed-gear fishing industries respond to evolving federal rules.

“It’ll be a lot easier to have that conversation when we can offer them that feedback about how and when whales are utilizing the same habitats that they are fishing in, and what that might mean for the future of regulations in their area, and how we can target any future resources to ask better questions,” Summers said.

The new monitors will be installed later this summer. Sites haven’t been finalized yet, but some might be placed in areas where federal regulators are considering seasonal fishing closures. Some could go to areas off Maine where right whales were known to congregate, and even breed, decades ago.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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