North Atlantic right whales may now be more critically endangered than ever before. Experts who have been monitoring the whales off the coast of Florida and Georgia are reporting that no right whale babies have been born this year.
Aerial surveys are conducted each year to spot new calves as they emerge off the coast of the southeastern United States. Now, as the winter calving season comes to a close, it looks like this could be the first year with no offspring since the observations began in 1989.
The North Atlantic right whale has been listed as endangered since 1970. There are an estimated 450 right whales remaining, and just under 100 of them are reproductively mature females.
There is growing concern that these females may not reproduce quickly enough or live long enough to save the species. The whales face major threats from human activities including ship strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing gear.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at least 17 right whales died in 2017 off the coast of Canada and the United States.
Philip Hamilton is an expert at the New England Aquarium who has been studying the right whales for three decades.
“It is truly alarming,” Hamilton said of this year’s winter calving season. “Following a year of such high mortality, it’s clear the population can’t sustain that trajectory.”
Even if the whales are not killed by entanglement or ship strikes, scientists say that the stress associated with ship noise and the trauma from entanglement may be causing the right whales to reproduce less often. In addition, the females may not be getting enough food to sustain a healthy pregnancy.
Over the past 30 years, right whales have averaged around 17 births per year. However, most calving seasons since 2012 have resulted in a below-average number of births.
Researchers will continue to look for newborn calves as the right whales return to their feeding grounds off the coast of the northeastern United States.
“It’s a pivotal moment for right whales,” said Barb Zoodsma of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “If we don’t get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end.”