Fewer Right Whales Left Off Georgia’s Coast

Right Whale Calf ~~ Photo Courtesy of GA's Department of Natural Resources

Right Whale Calf ~~ Photo Courtesy of GA’s Department of Natural Resources

Georgia Wild says only ten North Atlantic right whale calves have been spotted off the coasts of Florida and Georgia recently.  That’s about half the average normally seen since 2000.

Scientists monitoring the bus-sized whales off the coasts of Georgia and north Florida — the only known calving grounds for endangered North Atlantic right whales — spotted the ten calves, but one disappeared and likely died.

Clay George, who heads right whale research for DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, cautioned that the count isn’t final.  Calves born in the Southeast this winter but not seen here could be seen later this year at feeding and nursery areas in the Northeast and Canada.

Seasonal aerial surveys in this region ended March 31, yet most of the right whales that migrated to Georgia’s coast began returning north weeks ago.  George isn’t troubled by this year’s lower calf production.  “Given how few animals were seen in the Bay of Fundy.”

The more significant trend is population growth.  Right whales are posting a 2.7 percent per year growth rate, which is slow; but, it’s bolstered by what George calls the “upside” from this year’s calving season: No juvenile or adult whale deaths from ship strikes or entanglement in commercial fishing gear were documented.

Overall, fewer deaths by collision with vessels is credited to regional ship speed restrictions.  Another upside is that DNR and others partially disentangled a whale from commercial fishing gear in February (video).  Although not seen since, there’s hope the whale will be spotted in northern waters.

Researchers stress, though, that the key to entanglements is prevention, not intervention. Entanglement is a leading cause of right whale deaths, and 83% of the whales bear scars from being entangled.

For these long-lived and slow-to-reproduce creatures, such threats underscore the fragility of the species and the importance of calving – particularly with fewer than 100 breeding females left.  George said that if right whales slip into a protracted period of below-average calving, the population will begin to suffer.

That possibility points to another challenge in conserving one of Earth’s most imperiled whales.  Trends can take years to surface.  When they do, they can involve large-scale factors, such as climate change, that can alter habitats and prey sources on a scale as big as the Atlantic.

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