Four newborn right whales spotted early in 2019 breeding season

The end of 2018 contained more dark news for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, as scientists finding that the species decline had quickened.

An estimate by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) brought the total population count of the species to a maximum total of 411 individuals remaining, with as few as 100 of those remaining being females of breeding age. That news came on top of already grim finding that no new calves were born during the 2017-2018 breeding season.

But on 22 January, three new calves were reported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. And on 25 January, the agency recorded a spotting of a fourth right whale calf off the coast of Georgia. 

The North Atlantic right whales, one of the world’s three right whale populations, spend much of the winter in the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Florida and Georgia before migrating to New England the Canadian Maritimes for the summer. There, they face the danger of entanglement in fishing lines used in lobster and crab fishing.

In 2017, 17 right whales died from ship strikes or entanglements in fishing gear. In 2018, an additional three right whales died, with one of the deceased right whales found to have died from entanglement in snow crab gear used in Canada.

The entanglements have led Canadian and U.S. officials to implement measures that have been damaging to fisheries in both countries. The Canadian government has closed fishing zones near the endangered whales, forcing all fishing activity to stop for 15-days periods and requiring that all gear be removed from the area. In New England, regulators are looking at a range of options, including potential closures of the fishery in the Gulf of Maine south of Cape Elizabeth, Maine during April; reducing the number of traps lobstermen can use; and moving to require the use of ropeless traps.   

Such action is necessary, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC).

“It is clear that current management regulations have not been effective at reducing serious entanglement injuries,” it said in its 2018 report card on the species, estimating that between 2010 and 2016, 85 percent of right whale mortalities were related to entanglement.

To save the population, though, the right whale population also needs to grow through natural means, the NARWC said. And on that front, there appears to be more good news on the way. Researchers spotted additional female whales that are likely pregnant, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported.

Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


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