Tally of endangered right whale calves spotted so far this year increases to seven

Published on
May 28, 2019

Seven North Atlantic right whale calves have been spotted off the coast of the United States so far in 2019 – a positive development for the critically endangered species, according to a recent report from CBC News.  

Last year, no new North Atlantic right whale calves were born, and the overall population for the species was estimated to be just 411 individuals. The increased presence of calves this year is encouraging for research scientists like Garry Stenson, who heads the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) marine mammal division in Canada. 

"It's really nice to start seeing that we're getting more calves," Stenson told CBC News. “It's gonna take a lot more before we're gonna be feeling at all comfortable, but it does help to have some. It's a much better view than what we had last year.” 

Plane surveillance carried out this month revealed that North Atlantic right whales have returned to Canadian waters earlier than usual this year, arriving in late May instead of the typical June, the DFO said.  

One of the world’s three right whale populations, North Atlantic right whales usually spend their winters in warmer waters nearby Florida and Georgia before migrating to New England and the Canadian Maritimes for the summer. In years past during this migration, entanglements in fishing lines deployed by lobster and crab fishing operations and ship strikes have resulted in several whale deaths. In 2017, 17 right whales died from ship strikes or entanglements in fishing gear, and in 2018, an additional three right whales died from similar causes. 

The deaths drove Canadian and U.S. officials to implement a number of fishing restrictions and regulations, some of which have been scaled back. According to Stenson, “it’s too early to tell” if the restrictions have played a role in the lack of deaths in 2019.

"We really have to look at it over a number of years and see whether or not there's any change in mortality because of this," he said to CBC News.  

As of 1 May, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee approved the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) Right Whales Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton. First announced back in March 2019, the bipartisan bill aims to provide additional funding – up to USD 5 million (EUR 4.47 million) each year for 10 years – to research methods of rebuilding the endangered right whale population. Some of the grant money would go towards developing new commercial fishing gear to stave off entanglements, SeafoodSource reported earlier this month.

Meanwhile, a team of Canadian scientists hailing from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec, is preparing to do a deep dive into North Atlantic right whale behaviors this summer, with plans to conduct aerial surveys using planes and drones, as well as ship-based research, the CBC said. 

"We're looking at the whole ecology, the whole ecosystem for these whales in our trip, hopefully in the next couple of months," said Andrew Wright, a DFO marine biologist who will be leading the summer's study in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, starting in mid-July, to CBC News.

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