NOAA's newest research ship, Reuben Lasker, concluded its first scientific mission Nov. 9 when it returned to San Diego after nearly four months surveying whale populations along the West Coast, including a search for highly endangered right whales in waters off Alaska.
The Lasker’s mission included the first-ever survey of the entire range of eastern North Pacific gray whales that feed south of the Aleutian Islands in the summer. While most of the population’s roughly 20,000 gray whales spend the summer feeding north of the Aleutians in the Bering and Chukchi seas, a smaller number feed farther to the south between Northern California and Kodiak, Alaska. Scientists want to know how they fit into the species’ larger population structure.
Observers collected thousands of photographs of gray whales in the area and nearly 100 genetic samples that will be analyzed for patterns that would distinguish them from other gray whales that summer in the arctic, said Dave Weller of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for much of the expedition.
While observers aboard the ship did not spot any right whales, sophisticated acoustic equipment on board did record two confirmed calls of right whales off Kodiak Island. Right whales once numbered as many as 10,000 or more but only about 30 are thought to remain in the eastern North Pacific, their low numbers a legacy of historical whaling in the 19th century and large illegal catches by the former Soviet Union.
The ship surveyed about 2,500 nautical miles over about 30 days for right whales, said Brenda Rone of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the for the leg of the survey focused on right whales. “It's very sobering to think about how many right whales were caught out here and the fact that we've yet to find a single animal,” Rone said of the right whale effort.
The Lasker boasts an advanced design and technology specialized for ocean and fisheries surveys. The ship is engineered to operate more quietly than other similar ships, minimizing disturbance of the fish or marine mammals it is studying, and carries the latest navigation and acoustic technology for tracking and assessing fish and marine mammal populations.
The expedition was a collaboration between the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and was dubbed the Collaborative Large Whale Survey, or CLAWS for short. The information it gathered on whale populations will help NOAA Fisheries assess their distribution and evaluate possible impacts from commercial fishing, shipping and other activities.
In addition, the ship’s crew collected data on other marine mammals, including the sightings of many humpback whales and substantial numbers of blue whales off Alaska.
NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is part of the NOAA fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes both civilians and the commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The ship is homeported in San Diego, California.
Related article: Search for Rare and Critically Endangered North Pacific Right Whale Begins