, 2022-08-12 13:21:02,
Photographs shared by members of the public, via Facebook and nature-watching network iNaturalist, helped scientists assess how the species is faring around the Aotearoa New Zealand mainland.
Carried out in cooperation with the Department of Conservation and published in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management, the study reveals that southern right whales are slower than expected at re-establishing a habitat in mainland waters.
The research was led by Annabelle Cranswick, a masters student in the Faculty of Science at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland. Sightings of the whale rose between 2003 and 2010, but the increase wasn’t sustained over the past decade, Cranswick found. That’s despite some high-profile incidents such as the appearance of Matariki, the southern right whale that captured the nation’s heart while lingering in Wellington Harbour in 2018.
One possibility is that the species’ knowledge of mainland wintering grounds was lost when numbers crashed because of whaling.
“Photos supplied on social media and by citizen scientists are proving so important for us to monitor populations of these recovering whales,” says Cranswick. “We can assess that yes, this is a southern right whale, and discover how long a whale stayed in a particular area. Even a distant photo, showing just part of a whale, can be helpful,” says Cranswick. “We can pick a southern right from just the white patches called callosities on the head, their flat back, which lacks a dorsal fin, or even their large paddle-shaped pectoral fins.”
Information on population demographics aids conservation efforts. Facebook and iNaturalist photos supplemented a Department of Conservation—Te Papa Atawhai database that largely relies on citizen scientists’ whale sightings. Scientists focused on 116 sightings over 11 years (2011–2021) in the waters around mainland New Zealand, including the North (Te Ika a Māui), South (Te Waipounamu), and Stewart (Rakiura) islands.
“We went through ten years of social media data to extract these sighting reports,” says Hannah Hendriks, a marine biologist with the Department of Conservation. “There are very few whale researchers and rangers scattered across the country, so we rely on the public to be our eyes and ears.”
Bobby Phuong, a postie in Christchurch who’s an enthusiastic amateur wildlife photographer, shot one of the images to feature in the study. He drove for nearly an hour to see a whale and calf at Sumner…
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