In Search of the North Atlantic Right Whale

Alumni3 min. read

Camille Ross ’20 coauthors a new study predicting the travel patterns of the endangered species

Camille Ross '20
Camille Ross '20, a research technician at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, was lead author on a study showing that right whales may move away from their historic feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and farther northward into Canadian waters.
By Dominick Leskiw ’21Photography by Caitlin Penna
March 3, 2022

As a young girl growing up along the coast of New Jersey, Camille Ross ’20 dreamed of studying whales.

That dream is coming true for the Colby graduate, University of Maine master’s student in oceanography, and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences research technician.

Ross is the lead author of a recent study predicting changes in North Atlantic right whale distribution by the year 2050. Using computational models, Ross and her colleagues were able to show that right whales may move away from their historic feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and farther northward into Canadian waters. Ross hopes her findings will help improve conservation measures because these whales are critically endangered—only around 350 of them still roam the North Atlantic—and are at frequent risk of ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear.

The U.S. government has enacted protections to guard against these threats by forcing those who fish for lobsters to begin using ropeless lobster traps in certain areas beginning as early as this spring. Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills are trying to delay the implementation of those regulations to give the fishing industry more time to comply.

In the winter of her sophomore year, Ross spent Jan Plan at Bigelow, a leading marine research laboratory in East Boothbay, Maine. There, she met Nick Record, a computational oceanographer and senior research scientist of ecosystem modeling. Ross told Record she was interested in combining her love of computer science with whale research. “And he was like, ‘Yes! I have a great project for you,’” she said.

Ross returned to Bigelow in the fall of her junior year, and she and Record began collaborating on research relating small-scale fluid dynamics—processes like wave formation that happen on minuscule scales—to right whale distributions. “That project really piqued my interest in modeling right whales. From there, I started my honors thesis on right whale habitat predictions in the year 2050.”

A pod of Northern Right Whales in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. (Photo: Francois Gohier/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As part of her undergraduate thesis research, Ross began looking back in time to 2010 when North Atlantic right whales began shifting away from their typical habitats in the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy, upward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. One Bigelow study indicated that this relocation—called a regime shift, or a substantial, sustained change in an ecosystem dynamic—may have been linked to warming bottom-water temperatures, which caused zooplanktonic prey species to move northward during the whales’ feeding season. The whales, in turn, ventured north as well.

Intrigued, Ross attended the Gulf of Maine 2050 International Symposium in Portland during her senior year. There, she met David Brickman, a scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, whose research has generated models representing possible climate scenarios for the year 2050 based on projected greenhouse gas concentration trajectories. After conversing with Brickman, Ross and Record decided to test whether they could use historical data to model typical right whale habitat usage, project it onto forecasted climatic conditions like Brickman’s for the year 2050, and predict a change in the whales’ future distribution.

“We were able to see these drastic shifts,” Ross said. “Potential shifts, obviously, but in 2020 no right whales were sighted in the Bay of Fundy, which is a really important historical habitat for them. That was the first year this happened, and our models predicted it.”

Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, an open-access journal dedicated to collaborative, peer-reviewed research, published the paper in 2021. The journal is associated with the University of California Press.

“If we don’t know where the right whales are, where they’re feeding, or where they’re going to go next, we can’t put vital conservation measures in place.”

Camille Ross ’20

Ross hopes her projections will help researchers identify new or previously under-surveyed feeding sites, which may prove crucial in protecting the whales moving forward. “If we don’t know where the right whales are, where they’re feeding, or where they’re going to go next, we can’t put vital conservation measures in place,” Ross said.

These measures include shipping lane speed regulations and the adaptation of new fishing technology, as has been proposed in parts of Maine.

Ross’s right whale research will not end with this paper. She is working to improve one of the study’s key variables—the zooplankton prey field—for use in what is known as the Right Whale Decision Support Tool, a management framework that NOAA and the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team use to predict and hopefully reduce the risk of whale mortality. Incorporating the prey field, which is the probability that a high-density aggregation of zooplankton will form in a given area, will likely increase the model’s accuracy since researchers believe right whales tend to follow their food.

Few right whale modeling studies span as long a timeframe as the model Ross helped design. “There’s a lot of skepticism about the utility of modeling within the right whale community,” she explained. “But my hope is that this shows others that modeling can be useful in conjunction with aerial surveys and observational techniques and help inform where we should be looking.”

When asked about the research process, Ross reflected that “the biggest challenge and the biggest joy simultaneously was being the person who wrote the first draft; it was really empowering at such a young age to be able to write something that was going to be submitted for publication, and then get super constructive, helpful feedback that was going to help me improve what I was writing.”

This report is Ross’s first major publication. “On a personal level, this got my foot in the door with the right whale community, which is really exciting,” she said. “I have my name out there a little bit now.”

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