Whale watchers in Florida have reported the first North Atlantic right whale calf of the 2018-2019 birthing season in a rare piece of good news for the highly endangered species. Last year, not a single baby right whale was recorded, reports Jenny Gathright at NPR.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Facebook page, the wee little sea mammal was spotted last Friday.
“The weather outside may be frightful, but endangered species observers with Coastwise Consulting were hard at work aboard the dredge Bayport when today, they spotted the first North Atlantic right whale calf of the 2018-2019 season!,” the post reads. “The whales were sighted near the St. Johns River entrance, slowly moving north. The mother, Catalog #2791, was seen just 5 days ago off Georgia.”
Another good sign, researchers say, is that other possibly pregnant female whales were spotted off the coast of Georgia during the month of December, reports Dinah Voyles Pulver of The Daytona Beach News-Journal .
“To have five out of the six first whales seen down here possibly being pregnant females, that’s very hopeful,” says Julie Albert, coordinator of the right whale sighting hotline for the Marine Resources Council.
While other species of whales seem to be readily bouncing back from centuries of intense whaling, right whale species are struggling to recover. Because right whales are slow moving, stay close to shore and have lots of fatty tissue that was once used to make whale oil, they were a prime target for whale hunters.
Commercial whaling was banned in 1986, but contemporary shipping routes and fishing equipment continue to hamper the North Atlantic right whales' recovery.
After a slight population increase in the late 20th century, their numbers have dipped in recent years, declining from about 500 individuals in 2010 to an estimated 411 today. Pulver reports that it’s believed only 71 of those are female whales capable of breeding.
As of September 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that at least 19 whales had died during the 2017-2018 season, meaning the species is not reproducing enough to replace its population. Five of those deaths were linked to encounters with ships and an additional five with fishing nets. The mortality in the other nine cases could not be determined.
So, what’s going on with the baby bust in the last couple years? Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic reports that biologists believe the female whales have not been able to gain enough weight to support a pregnancy. The other concern is that stress from ship noise and entanglements with fishing gear, which the whales can carry around them for years, are stressing the animals out.
There are other threats to the whales as well. Seismic air blasting—used for oil and gas exploration along coastal waters—was approved in waters along the east coast in November. Some researchers believe the blasting could injure or disrupt the whales and other sea creatures that communicate using sound.
If these challenges aren’t addressed, and if the whales don’t start reproducing more regularly, it’s believed the North Atlantic right whale could go extinct in the next 20 years, making it the first great whale species to completely disappear on humanity’s watch.