The arrival of an 18-year-old North Atlantic right whale off the Northeast Florida shore during the past week kicked off hopes for a successful calving season, and a successful season is desperately needed following some of the lowest seasons on record, continuing deaths from fishing entanglements and problems caused by warming seas in traditional feeding areas off New England and the Canadian maritime provinces.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told First Coast News the whale is in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog as Harmonia. She born in 2001 to a whale known as No. 1701, and seen for the first time by New England Aquarium staff off the coast of Georgia. Born in February, she was seen by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Gulf of Maine by May of that year.
According to the sightings listed, Harmonia returned south in January 2002, December 2002, February 2005, December 2006, December 2008 and January 2016.
With 400 or fewer North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and few calving females, each calving season has a critical effect on the ability of the species to stave off extinction. A mature female can only calve once in a given cycle, and those cycles have lengthened from three or four years apart to around 10 years apart, putting greater stress on the population’s viability.
Often, the mothers have to swim further than before, because the zooplankton they live on have migrated north seeking cooler water. Also, the movement of those tiny creatures is causing the whales to search longer for them, which hinders the females’ ability to pack on the necessary blubber on which she and her calf live on during the long trek back up the East Coast.
And although discussions between federal regulators and New England lobster and crab fishers haven’t been as friendly as of late, there continues to be a push toward types of fishing gear that could pose less of a threat to right whales. Presently, heavy ropes tied to heavier crab pots constitute serious dangers to the lives of right whales moving through those waters.
The NMFS, also known as NOAA Fisheries, released its 2019 Gulf of Maine Marine Debris Action Plan in part to help remove some of these dangers within the right whale habitat. NOAA’s partnered with five different organizations seeking to reduce risks to wildlife in that habitat, including, conducting coastal habitat cleanups. There are also plans afoot with eight different groups to promote responsible practices to reduce and remove derelict fishing gear, along with inspiring industry action on that front.