The 2017-2018 calving season for North Atlantic right whales ended with zero calves on record. It marked the lowest spot since the downward trend in births began in 2010. There’s hope that this season will start a change in, well, the right direction.
“There was a lot of effort in Canada to do surveys — both U.S. scientists and Canadian scientists, and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff were busy doing surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where a lot of whales have been showing up in recent summers, and where many of those died in 2017,” said Clay George, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. “They found over 200-some-odd individual right whales, which is roughly half the population.
“They were seeing whales feeding and behaving as they would hope, and some of them in good physical condition. The hope is that, perhaps, they’ve found food now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and that they’ll hopefully be putting on weight, and that the females will be able to get to the condition where they’ll able able to start calving again.”
Officials recorded three right whale deaths over the summer, which is more in line with standard years. Last year, scientists discovered the carcasses of 17 right whales, which was a disturbing number considering the small total population and low calving years.
Stormy Mayo, a right whale researcher with the Center for Coastal Studies, spoke earlier this month at the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium annual meting in New Bedford, Mass.
“Everyone in the field — conservationists, the public, scientists — continue to be saddened by the decline,” Mayo said, according to The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket, Mass. “There’s no question there’s a decline. There’s no question we need to solve the mortality issue.”
There are only around 100 female right whales that are believed able to reproduce.
George said evidence appears to show that the effects of climate change are changing where right whales are able to feed. Typically, female right whales will forego reproducing if they’re not in a good enough physical condition to properly carry the pregnancy.
“Scientists that work in the Northeast U.S., particularly around the Gulf of Maine — where right whales traditionally summered in larger numbers — there’s emerging evidence that climate change and the effects that has on sea temperatures, but also on ocean currents, is probably having an effect on the distribution of plankton in that area,” George said. “That could be one of the factors that’s caused right whales to stop feeding in the Gulf of Maine during the summer, and instead go around Nova Scotia and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to feed.”
Saturday, staff from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will take to the skies for the first time this season to see if any right whales have made it south, and if there are any early births to report. Georgia DNR partners with the Sea to Shore Alliance, which will launch its first flight of the season Dec. 8.
“Hopefully, we’ll start seeing some whales in December,” George said. “Really, the population’s at a point where it’s in decline — that’s pretty clear at this point, that’s it’s been declining since 2010, and the scary thing is that the rate of decline actually seems to be happening faster than they were increasing in the 2000s. So, if we don’t start seeing some calves starting this year, it’s really concerning, because that means the whales are just going to be setting themselves back farther and farther, numbers-wise.”