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Whales Return To NYC After Decades Of Staying Away

Of all things associated with New York City, whale-watching is not an activity that comes to mind.  That may soon change if the water quality off the New York coast continues to improve.  

For the first time in nearly a century, large numbers of humpback whales have returned to the New York Harbor.  New York-based marine monitoring group Gotham Whale claims that there has been an "exponential increase" in sightings since they began to track whales, dolphins, and seals in 2011. The Telegraph reported that 20 whales were seen in 2016 alone.  

Tourism companies have capitalized on the return of the animals, with cruise lines such as American Princess Cruises offering whale-watching tours, reports Seattle Pi. The population return is not limited to whales, but includes other marine mammals such as seals and dolphins.  On the opposite side of the country, off the coast of California, shark populations are also on the rise.

Changes in water quality as a result of environmental protection programs is believed to be the cause of the whales' return to New York City. 

“Because of the improvement of the water quality, algae and zooplankton have multiplied, giving good food for the menhaden [a small fish consumed by whales], which have returned in numbers that the fishermen say they have not seen in their lifetimes,” Paul L. Sieswerda, the founder of Gotham Whales, told Popular Science.

According to Popular Science, General Electric dumped 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River in the three decades leading up to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1977.  The EPA has linked PCBs to cancer and a range of other defects.  Other activities, such as dumping sewage into the East River, are believed to have made the waters of New York City more polluted than they are today.  

Over in Europe, scientists are seeing the opposite trend.  In 2016, a killer whale that washed up on the coast of Scotland contained the highest levels of PCBs seen in recent years.  A BBC article reported that U.K. scientists had not seen a single calf born in 25 years, and that they may soon disappear altogether.

U.K. scientists blamed European environmental efforts for the population decline, and suggested they should adopt a more similar approach to the U.S.

"PCB levels in the United States have slowly declined in humans and other biota such as fish for many years now, and the overall PCB mitigation is generally considered to be successful in the US," said Dr. Paul Jepson, a scientist at the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London, according to the BBC.  "This is partly related to numerous US Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, which the EPA is actively working to decontaminate. We urgently need a similar approach in Europe".

Sources: Seattle Pi, The Telegraph, Popular Science, BBC / Photo credit: Edvab/Wikimedia Commons

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