Fisherman’s photos could be first visual evidence of North Pacific right whales in the Bering Sea in winter

The blocky heads of two right whales poking out of the water on the open seas
Two North Pacific right whales photographed near Unimak Pass on Feb. 8, 2022. (Courtesy of Josh Trosvig/FV Cerulean)

Josh Trosvig is the captain of the Cerulean, a 58-foot boat currently fishing for cod in the Bering Sea, about 80 miles northeast of Unalaska.

On a sunny day earlier this month, while he was waiting for the tide to change, he said he spotted something that looked like a large tote bobbing on the surface of the water, about 300 feet from his boat.

It turned out to be a group of whales.

But not just any whales.

“I’ve seen a lot of whales — thousands, tens of thousands in my 35 years of fishing out here,” Trosvig said. “But this was unique. I’ve never seen whales feed like that.”

Trosvig didn’t know it at the time, but the whales he was watching were North Pacific right whales. They’re critically endangered. And scientists say Trosvig is likely the first person to take photos and video of the whales feeding in the Bering Sea in the winter.

“To my knowledge, this is the first sighting of North Pacific right whales in winter in the Bering Sea,” said NOAA Fisheries scientist Jessica Crance. “We have acoustic detections, or sound recordings, of whale calls during January, but no actual sightings from this time of year.”

It took emailing between a few scientists until the whales in Trosvig’s footage were identified, because the sight is so unusual. Trosvig’s footage and other photos from fishermen prompted officials to call on fishing boats to exercise caution in the area.

Scientists say the images could help fill in some mysteries about the very small whale population.

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Rolling along the water’s surface ‘like bulldozers

As Trosvig stood on his boat, looking out at the water, he said the whales moved almost “like bulldozers.”

They’d pop their heads up and roll along the water’s surface for minutes at a time — feeding behavior he’s never witnessed before.

At first, he said, he thought they might be bowhead whales feeding on marine invertebrates, based on their color and size. But he wasn’t sure. So he took out his phone and recorded them. Then he sent the video to an assistant area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

“I firmly believe that knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the oceans,” Trosvig said. “We know more about the universe outside our solar system than we do about the depths of our own ocean. And for proper fisheries management and ecological management of the ocean, it’s critical for all of us to work together.”

Asia Beder manages groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands region. When she got the video from Trosvig last Tuesday, she dug through her marine mammal identification books, trying to identify the dark whales with white bumps on their heads and jawlines called callosities.

But she said she wasn’t completely sure what species they were. So she forwarded the video to NOAA fisheries for help.

“The simple email of, ‘Can you ID this?’ which I’ve seen many times for fish and crab and other animals, turned into a big thing,” said Beder.

The video of the whales then made its way to Crance, who helped solve the mystery. She’s a Seattle-based research biologist with the Marine Mammal lab at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, part of NOAA Fisheries. She said she helped identify the whales in the video as North Pacific right whales.

Beder, in Unalaska, was shocked.

“I don’t know anything about right whales, to be honest,” she said. “I know they exist, and I knew the population was low. But I didn’t realize how low, and so these sightings are really important.”

Eastern stock whale population falls from thousands to about 30

Right whales are among the rarest of all marine mammal species and have never been documented visually in the Bering Sea in winter months. They’ve been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970 and are depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

There are three different types of right whales: the North Atlantic, the Southern and the North Pacific. And the North Pacific right whales are split into two stocks: the eatern and the western.

“The western right whale is over in Japanese and Russian waters,” Crance said. “They number somewhere in the low hundreds, maybe 300 to 500 animals. The eastern stock is critically endangered.”

Scientists estimate there are only about 30 animals left in the eastern stock. That’s because the large baleen whales became the target of whaling in the 1800s. According to NOAA, the right whale got its name because it was the right whale to hunt — it moved slowly and would float after being killed.

It’s estimated that anywhere between 25,000 and 35,000 animals were taken in just a few decades,” Crance said. “So that brought the population to maybe around the high hundreds of animals. But then in the 1960s, the Soviets began hunting right whales illegally and took over 700 additional whales. That decimated the population and brought it down to what we think are their current numbers of roughly 30 animals.”

Crance — who has been studying right whales for more than a decade — said the eastern stock feeds in the southeastern Bering Sea during the summer months. But because there are so few of them to track, it’s still unknown where they go the rest of the year.

“Prior to this, we assumed that they all migrated south, much like every other large whale population,” said Crance.

Because of Trosvig’s video, researchers are now thinking some of the whales may stay in the Bering Sea through the winter.

Crance said that because they know so little about the eastern stock — including even how long they live — every single sighting increases their knowledge considerably.

That knowledge helps them continue to monitor and study the right whale population, she said.

Tracking whales by the white bumps on their heads

NOAA has a catalog of whales they’ve seen before, with corresponding numbers or names, Crance said. And they’re able to track specific whales based on their callosities.

But Trosvig’s video and photos are too far away to confirm if they’ve seen the whales before.

“There’s no way to know if these are known individuals or are new to us,” Crance said.

A map shows where whales were spotted
The North Pacific right whales were sighted near Cape Sarichef, northeast of Unimak Pass and northwest of Unimak Island, Alaska in early February 2022. (NOAA Fisheries)

There are a few known right whales that have been spotted in the Bering Sea in the past. But they were observed in the spring and summer.

For instance, Phoenix, a juvenile right whale, was spotted in the Bering Sea in 2017 — the first juvenile to be seen there in more than a dozen years. He was viewed as a sign of hope that the population might recover, said Crance.

Then there was Notchy, named for the notch on its flukes. It is the first and only North Pacific right whale to have been matched to both a high and low latitude area, according to Crance. Notchy was photographed in April of 1996 in Hawaii and, four months later, in the Bering Sea in Alaska. Notchy has made at least one migration, according to Crance, and is the only documented migration they have for this population.

Crance said Tuesday that NOAA hasn’t received any new images of the whales spotted by Trosvig in the past week or so.

But NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard are urging boaters to be careful in the area of Unimak Pass so they don’t harm the whales if they’re still nearby. The area is a major transit zone for ships — not just in and out of Dutch Harbor, but also to the rest of the world.

“Because they’re so critically endangered, every animal is crucial to the health of this population,” said Crance.

Also, Crance said, she hopes fishermen will continue to document the whales when they see them and send photos and videos to Fish and Game or NOAA.

“Every sighting that we get helps put one more piece of the puzzle together to try and understand the migration and movement patterns of these animals,” she said.

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