North Atlantic right whale calf count at 11


Eleven North Atlantic right whale calves have been spotted so far this calving season and surveyors who track the annual migration are hoping that number will grow.

“This has certainly been better than the very low numbers we saw in 2017, 2018 and 2019,” said Clay George, a marine mammal biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “But we were really hoping that we would get to up around two dozen calves this season. We just haven’t seen the continued influx of females we were hoping for.”

One of the 11 calves, a lone calf that was seen without its mother off the coast of North Carolina on Jan. 3, did not survive, leaving 10 calving pairs so far this season. Most of the calving pairs documented have been off the coast of Georgia or Florida.

Right whale calving season typically begins in mid-November and ends in mid-April.

The 10 living calves are an increase from the five documented calves in 2017, zero in 2018 and seven in 2019, and match the total of 10 in 2020, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With roughly three months left in the calving season, George and other researchers are hopeful the total in the end will be closer to the 20 calves documented in 2021 and 15 in 2022.

While the calf numbers are encouraging during the past two years, the overall trend in the right whale population is not. In 2010 there were 480. There are now fewer than 350.

“We’re heading in the wrong direction,” George said.

Researchers are seeing about half as many births per year as they did in the 2000s, he said, and deaths caused by ship strikes and commercial fishing gear entanglements continue to occur.

There were more than 100 breeding females in 2010. Today only 75 are left in the population, George said.

One female is known to be in a life-threatening entanglement and was last seen near Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. George said she will likely die if people can’t locate her soon and cut loose the rope in which she is wrapped.

Ship strikes are a main contributor to right whale deaths. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility suggests that between 20 and 35 percent of all whales found dead show cuts and blunt trauma consistent with ship strikes.

That is why George encourages all boaters to “keep a sharp eye for whales and slow down when they’re boating in the Atlantic Ocean from the shoreline out to approximately 30 miles.”

There are some signs of hope that mortality rates can improve. In 2022, George said there were no documented deaths of North Atlantic right whales. That is likely because fisheries in the whales’ far north summer feeding areas that were previously unregulated are becoming regulated. If mortality rates improve, George believes the population could stabilize.

But the challenges right whales face go beyond human interaction. George said researchers are seeing that copepods, a type of zooplankton on which right whales and many other mammal and fish species feed, aren’t where they used to be as water temperatures warm overall. This means whales are having to go farther and search for food that once was easy to find.

Because the whales are reasonably easy to monitor and track, scientists are able to get a good idea of the challenges faced by other species in finding the copepods as well.

“If these 45-ton animals are swimming all around the North Atlantic and can’t find any food, and the food is usually abundant, like copepods, that could be concerning for commercial fish stocks,” George said.

The annual Southeast right whale surveys are conducted by the Georgia DNR, Florida Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries and Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute.


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