Bring back the whale study, New York

There’s a lot of excitement in New York over recent news that whales, seals, and dolphins have returned to our waters. They’re showing up in such vast numbers that one ferry boat captain now offers weekend tours so folks can catch a glimpse of humpback, blue, fin, and right whales swimming off New York Harbor. 

This is a huge development for marine life in the region, and it’s a testament to how far the water quality in New York’s surrounding bays and oceans has come over the past few decades.  But in truth, we don’t know much about these new neighbors, including how many there are, where they’re heading, or even how to safeguard them. Getting this data is absolutely critical and should be a priority for the state going forward.

What little we do know came from a now-defunct whale monitoring study Cornell University launched in 2008 to help protect the endangered right whale and other species from fatal ship strikes as they crossed paths with shipping lanes close to shore.  Scientists used a series of acoustic water buoys to record whale songs, which then helped them to determine the whales’ locations and analyze migration patterns.

Unfortunately, the study – which was supposed to last three years with federal funding – ended after only a year when former Gov. David Paterson slashed the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) a whopping 40 percent. When the worst was over, resources were so depleted the program couldn’t even afford to keep a project manager on board.

But now there’s good news for the whales, and it’s not just that New Yorkers are excited about them. The proposed 2011-2012 budget Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out last week includes $5 million for ocean conservation in the EPF – funding that could (and should) go toward Cornell’s study and other important ocean programs.  

Armed with complete data – a full three years’ worth – we can implement programs like the one in Massachusetts, where a system of buoys listens for whales in real-time and alerts ships in the area so they can slow down and avoid the whales.

And the data isn’t just useful for keeping tabs on these giants – it’s also a valuable resource for properly siting offshore energy outside of their migratory pathways and supporting a budding economic opportunity: whale tourism.  The New York Daily News recently caught up with the ferry boat operator, Tom Paladino, who started whale and seal watching tours once he realized he was seeing so many whales in New York’s waters. Take a look:

Dr. Christopher Clark, one of the lead scientists on the Cornell study, also told the Daily News that the buoys identified six whale species (at least 50 fin whales now live full-time in New York Bay) and that the numbers are "’far, far more than expected, even for me… I've been surprised elsewhere in the world, but off New York - yikes!’" Clark says he’s trying to raise at least $1 million to continue the work.

The EPF funding is essential to ensuring that the economic and environmental engines that are our oceans are healthy. NRDC is encouraged by the new money in Cuomo’s budget and hopes that this study at last gets the proper resources it needs. The whales – and Mr. Paladino – are counting on us.