New Brunswick

Right whale poop impacts Bay of Fundy's ecosystem, says researcher

After wondering if the nutrients from Right whale poop had an impact on the marine ecosystem around them, researchers from the University of Vermont found out it does.

More Right whales means more nutrients in the water

The feces from Right whales is having an impact on the Bay of Fundy's marine ecosystem. (CBC)

After wondering if the nutrients from Right whale poop had an impact on the marine ecosystem around them, researchers from the University of Vermont found out it does.

Dr. Joe Roman, a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont says when he started out as an observer of the Right whales in the 1990s he noticed soon after they dived to forage or when in large courtship groups there would be a lot of feces in the water, big plumes around the whales.

"That got me interested over time as to what the ecological impact might be on that," said Roman. 

Dr. Joe Roman is the lead author of the study and a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. 6:14

Roman authored the study of how the fecal matter of the endangered species impacted the Bay of Fundy. 

Researchers measured how much poop, nitrogen, phosphorous, and iron would be in the water and how it would affect the phytoplankton in the Bay of Fundy.

"What we found is phytoplankton rates - that is productivity for the algae in the water - actually goes higher and that could have impacts on the zooplankton, the fish and even on the whales themselves," said Roman.

Roman adds having more whales in the bay means there are more nutrients and bigger blooms of phytoplankton.

Whale's impact important

"That can affect the entire bay or certainly small areas of the bay where the whales are feeding."

Roman said with the Right whale population down to about 500, understanding the impact they have on the bay is important.

"Right whales, like other whale species such as fin whales and humpback whales, are coming back though and populations are increasing and we expect that we will see changes in the Bay of Fundy and elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine as these whales come back."

Roman says the Right whales are a great species to study as the population hopefully starts coming back.

There are only 500 right whales left. (CBC)
The research team collected the Right whale poop by using a fine mesh dip net. "When the whale defecates, you go in and collect that and then we freeze it."

Roman said one of the most productive times to find and collect the feces is when the whales are in the courtship group.

"That is when you have one female and 10, sometimes 15 males surrounding that female all trying to mate with her and there is a lot of feces in the water."

Roman says the impact the feces is having on the nutrients in not only the Bay of Fundy but the entire Gulf of Maine is comparable, and as whale populations grow, the impact will be greater.

That being said, Roman adds humans need to do their part to help keep the whale populations growing by managing fishing gear in which whales can get caught, and having shipping routes that avoid areas where whales breed and feed.

With files from Information Morning Saint John