NOAA ship

NOAA ship Reuben Lasker, one of the most technologically advanced fisheries vessels in the world, will be in Kodiak on Aug.1, officials say. (Robert Pitman/NOAA Fisheries)

Watch out, local whale lovers.

NOAA’s newest research ship, the Reuben Lasker, will soon be in Kodiak with 10 scientists aboard who will begin surveying for gray whales.

The vessel departed San Diego on July 9 on its first scientific mission to survey gray whales along the West Coast and search the Gulf of Alaska for right whales, among the most rare and endangered whales on Earth. It is on schedule to reach Kodiak on Aug. 1.

This is the first dedicated survey for right whales in the Gulf of Alaska, officials said.

Accurate information on whale populations helps NOAA Fisheries assess their abundance and distribution, as well as evaluate possible impacts from commercial fishing, shipping and other human activities.

“Any data we can collect, even a photograph, would be a great achievement,” said Brenda Rone, a research biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and leader of the second leg of the Lasker’s voyage.

Lasker, described by NOAA officials as one of the most technologically advanced fisheries vessels in the world, will use visual observations, as well as acoustic monitoring to search a swath of the Gulf of Alaska for right whales during much of August.

Right whales, the three species of large baleen whales, once used the area extensively, but it’s not clear if they still do, or indeed how many survive today, NOAA officials say. All three species are migratory, moving seasonally to feed or give birth.

Right whales were a preferred target for whales because of their docile nature, their slow surface-skimming feeding behaviors, their tendencies to stay close to the coast and their high blubber content, which produce high yields of whale oil.

The scientists aboard will also survey for blue and fin whales, which sometimes frequent the same waters.

“Even though they’re such a critically endangered population it’s difficult to get the opportunity to learn much about North Pacific right whales. They are incredibly rare and it requires a lot of effort just to locate them,” Rone said. “It’s really invaluable to have this kind of time aboard a large vessel in this area.”

The expedition is a collaboration between the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, and Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle to take advantage of the Lasker’s advanced design and technology.

“This is a great opportunity for both science centers to make use of this new ship to answer some important questions about different species of whales,” said Dave Weller, a marine biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the voyage. “We see this as a model for how we may work together in the future.”

The population of gray whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean is estimated at about 20,000, but biologists want to know how many of those summer south of the Aleutian Islands and whether they are genetically distinct from whales that summer farther north in the Bering and Chukchi seas.

“Is this a separate unit of whales we should be concerned about? Or is there a single population within the eastern North Pacific? Those are the questions we’re trying to answer,” Weller said. “We may be surprised at how many there are, or we may be surprised to find there are not that many.”

Once the ship reaches Kodiak, its focus will shift to a much more rare and imperiled species: North Pacific right whales, which once numbered perhaps about 10,000 to 20,000 in the Pacific but were hunted nearly to extinction.

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center now estimates that about 30 adult right whales remain, making them likely the world’s smallest whale population.

The Lasker is engineered to operate more quietly than other similar ships, minimizing disturbance to 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 10 scientists aboard will begin surveying for gray whales after the ship passes north of the north end of Vancouver Island. Their interest is in a group of gray whales that does not migrate all the way north to summer in the Bering and Chukchi seas like most gray whales, but instead spend their summers feeding between Kodiak and Northern California.

Following the August search for right whales, the Lasker will return south from Kodiak on the third of five legs that will conclude back in San Diego on Nov. 9. On the trip south, the scientists aboard will again focus on gray whales feeding south of the Aleutian Islands.

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