The words went into headlines from news outlets like the Associated Press, the Canadian Press, the BBC, the Orlando Sentinel, and from smaller publications like the Gloucester Daily Times in Massachusetts.
The words “baby boom” and “right whale.”
But the 2018-19 North Atlantic right whale calving season was not a baby boom — nothing like it — and ended in seven observed calves born. In fact, the species remains on a path toward extinction.
“Seven calves aren’t great — I think we probably remember the previous season we had zero calves, which was really our worst year ever,” state Department of Natural Resources biologist Mark Dodd said.
The assessment came during a meeting Tuesday morning at the state DNR’s Coastal Resources Division headquarters that primarily dealt with the beginning of sea turtle nesting season, but also involved discussion of area aquatic mammals and shorebirds.
Dodd said that for the population of right whales to stay stable, to simply break even there needed a minimum 16 calves born this season. As such, the past calving season represents a continued downturn.
An estimated 411 North Atlantic right whales remain.
“You can see that, from 2000-2010, we were averaging about 24 calves a year,” Dodd said, gesturing to a graph that showed the number of calves recorded per year. Through that decade, it appeared North Atlantic right whale numbers were on a steady increase.
For the last eight years, the average calves recorded went to around 12, with this year and the previous two among the worst on record.
“Over the last six years or so, we’ve seen a precipitous decline — we’ve lost about 15 percent of the population over six years’ time,” Dodd said. “So, that’s not good news for right whales.”
One of the things observed during the summer of 2010 was the whales left their usual home in the Gulf of Maine. As the gulf warmed, the plankton the whales feed on moved north, so the whales moved with it, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
One problem here is females of calving age aren’t able to put on enough fat to feed them on the way south and both them and the calf on their way back north. The second and third ongoing problems are fishing entanglements and boat strikes — around 4 percent of the population died in 2017-18 because of entanglements and strikes.
When the discovery of the new whale feeding ground occurred, the Canadian government took steps to handle it.
“The Canadians literally closed the fisheries, rerouted ships,” Dodd said. “They brought icebreakers in this year so that the fishermen could get out and fish in spring prior to the right whales showing up. They actually put some pretty serious restrictions on fishing to protect right whales.”
That hasn’t happened south of the border. However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (ALWTRT) is meeting in Providence, R.I., this week to come up with solutions. There are around 80 people involved from different organizations representing 14 states who are part of the team.
“Tackling entanglements is critical to the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale population, and we can’t do it without the assistance and cooperation of those who know best how the fishing industry interacts with large whales,” Mike Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, said in a statement.
The concentration largely is on lobster regulations and lobster fishing gear. The use of a “risk assessment tool” is receiving a great deal of push-back from the lobster industry and New England state fishery officials.
According to Maine Public Radio, Commissioner Patrick Keliher of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and New Hampshire Chief of Marine Fisheries Doug Grout wrote a four-page letter to Pentony detailing their concerns.
“Unfortunately, the weeks leading up to this meeting have raised serious concerns about the ability to thoughtfully make these recommendations,” the officials state. “Specifically, NOAA Fisheries has been inconsistent in its message on the analysis that will be provided to the ALWTRT, executed poor time management in holding sub-group meetings and developing tools, provided insufficient time for stakeholders to review newly developed models, and compromised the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of the analysis needed to support important decisions.
“This has hindered the states’ ability to prepare for the ALWTRT meeting, and solicit the participation and engagement of the fishing industry.”
The general mood from the states and industry is to delay action, but NOAA indicates the tool isn’t the end-all and be-all of this process. The ALWTRT meeting concludes Friday.