As the North Atlantic right whale breeding season enters its second month, nine calves have already been born, according to Amy Warren, an assistant researcher at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. While hoping for more births, Warren notes that the current count aligns closely with previous seasons, and the trends have varied over the years.
(Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Funded by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.)
Comparing this year's count to the same period last year, Warren mentions that they had 10 calves at this time. Although she expresses a desire to see numbers in the 20s, the average used to be 22 calves annually, a figure not achieved in the past decade.
Despite a sufficient number of females at the breeding grounds off northern Florida and the coast of Georgia, Warren points out that achieving over 20 births would require nearly all of them to give birth—an unrealistic expectation. She emphasizes the importance of addressing the health issues facing female right whales, many of which are attributed to human activities.
In October, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium estimated the total right whale population at 356 and reported two detected deaths in 2023. However, they highlighted that about two-thirds of right whale deaths go undetected. A New England Aquarium analysis identified 32 human-caused injuries in 2023, primarily resulting from entanglements in fishing gear.
(Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA permit 26919. FWC right whale aerial surveys are funded by USACE, USCG, U.S. Navy, and NOAA Fisheries)
Warren emphasizes that some apparently healthy whales do not give birth regularly, if at all. The recent sighting of the ninth calf was from a mother whale named Swerve, who last gave birth eight years ago. Additionally, there is a first-time mother this year, identified as whale number 3780, a mysterious individual that researchers know little about due to her sporadic appearances.
Warren points out a concerning trend where whales are waiting longer to have their first calf, potentially due to slower development or challenges in preparing their bodies for childbirth. While right whales used to give birth as early as eight or nine years old, the norm now extends into their late teens or early twenties.
Highlighting the importance of ensuring the safety of newly-born whales, Warren addresses concerns about ship strikes. Calves in the breeding grounds are still learning to swim and cannot hold their breath for long, making them more vulnerable. Research teams communicate this information to the public to raise awareness among boaters in the area.
The article concludes by emphasizing the ongoing efforts to protect right whales, including fishery closures triggered by sightings in Atlantic Canada and reduced ship speed limits, instituted following the deaths of 21 right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 and 2019.
Source: Hannah Rudderham (Jan 6, 2024). 9 North Atlantic right whale calves born so far this breeding season. CBC News. https://bit.ly/3ROnyI9