Right whales spotted off Block Island get protection extended

A slow-speed zone from the North Fork of Long Island and the entryway to Long Island Sound known as The Race, along the Rhode Island coast to Woods Hole, Mass., has been extended until May 5 to protect the unusually large congregation of North Atlantic right whales in the area since last week.

Friday afternoon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the area, which includes the waters surrounding Block Island on all sides, will continue to be considered a "dynamic management area," where vessels 65 feet and larger are asked to travel at speeds no higher than 10 knots. The dynamic management area designation was set to expire Friday, when any migrating right whales normally have left the area. Last week NOAA established a temporary smaller slow-speed zone through May 5 to cover the waters between Block Island and Martha's Vineyard where 98 right whales had been seen.

Right whales migrate north annually this time of year along the North Atlantic coast, traveling through some of the nation's busiest shipping lanes.

It is the largest gathering of this highly endangered species ever recorded in the Block Island area, and represents one-quarter of the remaining population. They are among the world's largest creatures, growing to 55 feet in length and weighing up to 70 tons. Scientists say they are probably in the area feeding on copepods carried there by currents, and are likely to stay as long as they can continue to find ample food.

Because the main causes of death for right whales are collisions with ships and entanglements with fishing gear, NOAA has established a system to alert mariners when they are traveling through an area and voluntary speed limits in those areas.

The whales are tracked through aerial surveys and through a network of listening buoys along their migration route.

Also Friday, NOAA announced that its Woods Hole fisheries laboratory will conduct its annual three-week study of right whales next month in the Great South Channel of Cape Cod, where they historically congregate. The Great South Channel is one of five key habitat areas for right whales, Lisa Conger, chief scientist for the May study, said in a news release.

This year scientists will attempt to tag the right whales and also sei whales.

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