GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 13, 2013

Fish supplies hurting whale watch ventures

By Sean Horgan
Staff Writer

---- — There are more signs that it’s not just commercial fishermen who have felt the bite of declining and shifting fish stocks in and around the waters of Gloucester and Cape Ann.

The same is true for many of the sea-going adventure businesses that ply their trade out of Gloucester Harbor.

You only have to go back to your elementary school maritime food-chain lessons to know that fish and whales go where their food goes, just as our ancestors chased the great herds across the plains.

Consider the local whale-watching businesses and what happens to them when the fish stocks which make up the whales’ seafood buffet — the same species that in many cases serve as the preferred food of the increasingly elusive cod and haddock — either decline or move on to more fertile grounds.

The result is fewer whales or, in a worst-case scenario, no whales at all for those nice folks vacationing from Peoria and elsewhere to see.

“Lately, it has been a little challenging,” said Jim Douglas, co-owner of Cape Ann Whale Watch since 1979. “We’re seeing them on every trip we go out. It’s just not the huge number we’ve seen in past years.”

On Monday, for instance, Douglas said his afternoon boat spotted three humpback whales between 13 and 15 miles out from the harbor.

“The thing that we’re not seeing is a lot of the open-mouth feeding (by the whales) that we’ve seen in the past,” Douglas said. “That is probably due to the lack of sand eels in the area.”

The sand eels, also known as American sand lance, are the food of choice for whales, just as they are the bait of choice for the cod and haddock that have served as part of the traditional prey of Gloucester’s commercial fishing fleet.

“Fish are very cyclic and in the first four years they are very abundant,” said Michelle Barclay, naturalist at Gloucester’s 7 Seas Whale Watch. “Then they get less and less so. Right now, we are at the bottom of their feed cycle.

“We don’t have very many sand lance right now,” she added. “We’re very fish-dependent. Whales go where the fish are the heaviest. Where the fish are plentiful is where you’re going to find the most whales.

“When they’re abundant, life is very, very easy for us. When they’re slim, life is difficult. It’s been a challenge all year because we just haven’t had the numbers of sand lance. There are whales out there, it’s just more challenging.”

Obviously, as the sand lance go, so go the whales, cod and haddock. You don’t have to search any further than the declining numbers of boats making their way to Gloucester’s seafood auction houses to see that’s the case.

“We used to see 25-30 active boats and 10-15 day boats,” said Nick Giacalone, the owner/operator of Gloucester’s Buyers and Sellers Exchange. “Now it’s about five day boats and two trip boats a week.

“The cod and haddock have moved.”

Chasing the sand lance as if they were herds of buffalo.

Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com.