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New Research Reveals: The New York Bight Is an Important Year-Round Habitat for Endangered Fin Whales

Fin Whale A fin whale in the New York Bight. Fin whales are the second largest whale species living today, eclipsed in size only by blue whales. Male fin whales sing loud, repetitive songs that can be heard across very large distances. (Photo Credit: WCS Ocean Giants Program)

February 15, 2024

Researchers aim to use their science to help inform best practices and strategies to better protect fin whales in waters off NY and NJ

Woods Hole, Mass. – The New York Bight is an important year-round habitat for endangered fin whales, according to new research examining fin whale song patterns.

This new paper published by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists in the journal “Scientific Reports” reveals new insights about the presence and potential subpopulation distribution of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in waters off New York and New Jersey ranging from Montauk, NY to Cape May, NJ. You can read the paper, “Fin whale song characteristics and potential subpopulation identity in the New York Bight,” here.

This new research provides valuable information that can be used to inform best practices and develop effective management strategies needed to better protect endangered fin whales. For example, management strategies, like vessel speed restrictions can be implemented seasonally if a species is only present at certain times of the year. However, when endangered animals are present year-round, seasonal strategies can leave these animals susceptible to various threats at certain times of year.

To help better protect fin whales in the New York Bight, WCS and its partners are also promoting the development of a region-specific strategy for US management authorities that addresses the specific threats to fin whales in this region.

A study co-author and Associate Marine Conservation Scientist with the Ocean Giants Program at WCS, Dr. Mindi Rekdahl said: “More information is needed about the distribution and behavior of fin whales within the New York Bight to help inform how this endangered species can be protected from the range of potential stressors and threats encountered year-round in these waters.”

Carissa King-Nolan, a WCS Assistant Marine Conservation Scientist and lead author added, “In order to fill this knowledge gap, we used passive acoustic monitoring to examine monthly and yearly patterns in fin whale song from 2017 to 2020. These song patterns gave us valuable insight into the year-round presence and behavior of fin whales.”

The researchers analyzed archived recordings from a total of 653 days for the presence of fin whale songs. Fin whale song was detected in every month of the year, with song most prevalent in the fall to winter (September–December), followed by spring (March–April), and was typically sporadic from late spring to summer (May–July). Differences in the pattern, or the interval between successive song notes, were also found. Songs during the fall to winter had short intervals between notes and this likely represented breeding behavior while songs with longer note intervals during the spring likely represented foraging behavior. The results of this study, combined with other recent research, indicate that the New York Bight is an important year-round habitat for both foraging and breeding fin whales.

WHOI built, deployed, operated, and recovered the acoustic buoys that collected the data used in the study.

“The New York Bight buoys play a critical role in the protection of wildlife, like the fin whale, in one of the busiest waterways in the world. The data collected lets industry, government and the public know when whales are nearby,” said Mark Baumgartner, co-author and WHOI marine ecologist.

A Fin Whale swimming in NY Bight (Video by WCS Ocean Giants Program)

Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of WCS’s Ocean Giants Program and study co-author said: “Perhaps it is time give some further consideration to fin whales as NY/NJ’s whale. While they may not be seen as close to shore as other whales and dolphins, it is truly remarkable that the second largest animal to have ever lived on this earth is here in the New York Bight year-round off our coasts. Hopefully, our efforts will lead to more efforts and best practices to better protect these amazing, endangered animals in the NY Bight.”

This research is part of a larger joint project that includes WCS’s Ocean Giants Program and WHOI. The project, launched in 2016, uses acoustic buoys which collect data to learn more about whales in the NY Bight to help guide decision-making and best practices of  human-use activities in this area. This work was supported by grants from The G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation and Equinor Wind US LLC.

The WCS Ocean Giants Program does extensive research in the NY Bight to provide the science needed to protect marine species in the area and their habitat. The whales in the NY Bight include: Endangered fin whales; Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whales; humpback whales; Endangered sei whales; and minke whales. WHOI’s buoys also detect sounds and transmit information about those sounds to shore in near real time. The sounds of different species of whales can be identified by an analyst with this information and relayed to appropriate authorities for immediate action. WHOI currently operates similar buoys at seven sites on the U.S. East Coast and 2 sites on the U.S. West Coast to alert mariners about the presence of whales as part of the NOAA Slow Zones for Right Whales Program and the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory’s Whale Safe system. WCS and WHOI’s publication on North Atlantic Right whales can be found HERE.

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About the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

WCS combines the power of its zoos and an aquarium in New York City and a Global Conservation Program in more than 50 countries to achieve its mission to save wildlife and wild places. WCS runs the world’s largest conservation field program, protecting more than 50 percent of Earth’s known biodiversity; in partnership with governments, Indigenous People, Local Communities, and the private sector. Its four zoos and aquarium (the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, and the New York Aquarium ) welcome more than 3.5 million visitors each year, inspiring generations to care for nature. Founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society, the organization is led (as of June 1, 2023) by President and CEO Monica P. Medina.

Visit: Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: +1 (347) 840-1242Listen to the WCS Wild Audio podcast HERE.

About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its mission is to understand the ocean and its interactions with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in fundamental and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of ocean data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge to inform people and policies for a healthier planet. Learn more at