A fisherman photographed a group of whales. His images may be the first-ever captures of the species feeding in the Bering Sea in winter.
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, as he waited for the tide to change, he said he spotted something that looked like a large bag floating on the surface of the water, about 300ft from his boat .
It turned out to be a group of whales.
But not just any whales.
“I’ve seen lots of whales – thousands, tens of thousands in my 35 years of fishing here,” Trosvig said. “But it was unique. I’ve never seen whales feeding like that.
Trosvig didn’t know it at the time, but the whales he was seeing were right whales from the North Pacific. They are critically endangered. And scientists say Trosvig is probably the first person to take photos and videos of whales feeding in the Bering Sea in winter.
It took emails between a few scientists until the whales were identified because the sight is so unusual. The footage from Trosvig and other photos of fishermen prompted officials to call on fishing boats to exercise caution in the area.
Additionally, scientists say the images could help solve some mysteries about the very small whale population.
Roll on the surface of the water “like bulldozers”
As Trosvig stood on his boat, staring out at the water, he said the whales moved almost “like bulldozers”.
They would raise their heads and roll along the surface of the water for minutes at a time – a feeding behavior he had never witnessed before.
At first, he says, he thought they might have been bowhead whales feeding on marine invertebrates, due to 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 strongly 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 know about the depths of our own ocean. And for good fisheries management and ecological ocean management, it is essential that we all work together.
Asia Beder manages the groundfish fishery in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands region. When she received the video from Trosvig last Tuesday, she rummaged through her marine mammal identification books, trying to identify right whales with white bumps on their heads and jaws called calluses.
But she said she wasn’t completely sure what species it was. So she forwarded the video to NOAA Fisheries for help.
“The simple email of ‘Can you identify this?’ that I’ve seen many times for fish, crab and other animals, turned into a big thing,” said Beder, who works for the state office of fish and game in Unalaska/ Dutch Harbor.
The video of the whales then made its way to Jessica Crance who helped solve the mystery. She is a Seattle-based research biologist with the Marine Mammal Laboratory 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.
“To be honest, I don’t know anything about right whales,” she said. “I know they exist, and I knew the population was low. But I hadn’t realized how much, and so these observations are really important.
Eastern whale population drops from thousands to around 30
Right whales are among the rarest of all marine mammal species and have never been documented in the Bering Sea during the winter months. They have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970 and are sold out under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
There are three different types of right whales: North Atlantic, South, and North Pacific. And right whales in the North Pacific are divided into two stocks: eastern and western.
“Western right whale is finished 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 that there are only about 30 animals left in the eastern stock. This is because 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 floated after being killed.
“It is estimated that between 25,000 and 35,000 animals were captured in just a few decades,” Crance said. “So that brought the population to maybe around hundreds of animals. But then, in the 1960s, the Soviets started hunting right whales illegally and caught over 700 more whales. That decimated the population. and brought it down to what we think is their current number of around 30 animals.
Crance – who has studied right whales for more than a decade – said the eastern stock feed in the southeast Bering Sea during the summer months. But because there are so few to follow, it’s still unclear where they go the rest of the year.
“Before that, we assumed they had all migrated south, much like all the other major whale populations,” Crance said.
Thanks to the video from Trosvig, researchers now believe that some whales may remain in the Bering Sea through the winter.
Crance said that because they know so little about the eastern stock — including even their lifespan — each sighting increases their knowledge dramatically.
This knowledge helps them continue to monitor and study the right whale population, she said.
Track 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 are able to track specific whales based on their calluses.
But the video and photos from Trosvig are too far away to confirm if they have ever seen the whales.
“There’s no way of knowing if these are known individuals or if they’re new to us,” Crance said.
There are a few known right whales that have been spotted in the Bering Sea in the past. But they have been observed in spring and summer.
For example, 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. It was seen as a sign of hope that the population might recover, Crance said.
Notchy was named for the notch on its flukes, and is the first and only right whale in the North Pacific to have been matched to both high and low latitude, according to Crance. Notchy was photographed in April 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 had received no new images of the whales spotted by Trosvig in the past week.
But NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard are urging boaters to be cautious in the Unimak Pass area so as not to harm whales if they are still nearby. The region is a major staging area for ships not only entering and leaving Dutch Harbor, but also to the rest of the world.
“Because they are critically endangered, each animal is crucial to the health of this population,” Crance said.
Additionally, Crance said she hopes anglers will continue to document whales when they see them and send photos and videos to Fish and Game or NOAA.
“Every sighting we receive helps put one more piece of the puzzle together to try to understand the migration and movement patterns of these animals,” she said.