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Right whales scarce in Bay of Fundy

By BRUCE BARTLETT
Telegraph-Journal
August 21/04

    Scientists are investigating the links between algae blooms in the Bay of Fundy, known as red tides, and right whales.
   There is a significant red tide bloom in the bay this summer and the right whales are scarce, said Dr. Moira Brown of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.
   "We have only seen about a dozen animals," she said from Lubec, Me., Friday, where observers are located for their 25th year of researching the marine mammals.

FEEDING GROUNDS
WHALES:
Marine mammals may be avoiding bay because of algae

    "We are sampling plankton to see if it is affected by the red tide. We are also doing something that's not very glorious, we are collecting right whale poop," she said.
   Right whales grow up to 17 metres in length and may weigh up to 100 metric tons. They have large mouths with fringes known as baleen and feed by filtering huge amounts of water through their mouths, swallowing small but plentiful items especially copepods.
   Although right whales are scarce, other whale species that feed on fish, such as humpbacks, are plentiful in the Bay of Fundy this summer.
   Right whales range from Florida to the Bay of Fundy and detailed observations can only confirm the existence of about 350 animals.
   Although each year is different, a similar red tide bloom occurred in 1983 and the whales stayed away, Dr. Brown said.
   Red tide is the name for an algae bloom that casts a reddish tinge to the water. When eaten by clams it makes them potentially deadly to humans, causing paralytic shellfish poisoning.
   Right whales may ingest the red algae, or small organisms feeding on the algae, but scientists do not know what impact it has on the whales, said Dr. Brown.
   There is no evidence it makes the right whales sick but it does appear to make them go somewhere else, she said.
   Next week a group from the Center from Coastal Studies plans to travel to a second right whale habitat off the tip of Nova Scotia, known as Roseway Basin.
   They plan to base themselves out of Clarke's Harbour to carry out their observations.
   Roseway Basin is the other designated conservation area for right whales in Canadian waters, she said.
   "We haven't been out there by boat in about 10 years because we have had so many right whales in the Bay of Fundy," she said.
   "Some years we have had over 200 in the Bay of Fundy by now."
   The whales really need to feed this time of year, so they could be elsewhere if the food is unpalatable to them in the Bay of Fundy, she said.
   Peter Wilcox, whose family has run whale tours from Seal Cove, Grand Manan for many years, has only seen one right whale so far this season.
   Although he doesn't discount the red tide connection, he believes the cool summer may be responsible for the lack of right whale sightings.
   "We had a late spring and some of the food they eat ... develops in salt marshes and if you had lower temperatures than normal some of that food source might not be developed to the levels they need," he said.
   On a recent trip he saw about 20 humpback whales in an area of the bay known as the prong. There are also a number of finback whales off Grand Manan, he said.
   Everything is about a week to 10 days behind in growth because of the cool weather, including the Puffins on Machias Seal Island, he said.

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