Season's First North Atlantic Right Whale Calf Spotted in Georgia

There are fewer than 350 left in the world.

North Atlantic right whale calf and mother

Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #20556

The first North Atlantic right whale calf of the season was spotted off the coast of St. Catherines Sound in Georgia.

Scientists from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute (CMARI) in Florida saw the calf with its mother during an aerial survey on Dec. 7. The whales were 11 miles east of Ossabaw Island. This is the first sighting of the 2022-2023 season.

The mom is right whale No. 1208, nicknamed  “Medusa.” She’s believed to be about 42 years old and this is her seventh documented baby.

Researchers estimate that there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales left, with not even 100 breeding females remaining.

North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are classified as critically endangered with their population decreasing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They are one of the most critically endangered animals in the world, says the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Areas off the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, and northeast Florida—where the whales have their calves—have been designated as critical habitat areas to help protect the species.

“Through aerial surveys, the CMARI team works together to protect the species,” said James Powell, president and executive director of CMARI. “Recovery had been slow and steady until 2010 when we started to see a decline. Most recent population models show that the numbers are declining again for various reasons including a slow reproduction rate, threats from entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with large vessels, and possibly other factors not yet identified.”

Continued Threats

Last year, the first North Atlantic right whale calf of the season was spotted off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, in November.

In the past few years, rates have been just about 20 calves per season. However, because of serious injury and mortality issues, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says about 50 or more calves need to be born each year to allow the species to recover.

Right whales got their name from being the "right" whales to hunt because they moved so slowly and floated when they were killed, according to NOAA.

The two main threats they face are entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.

“Vessel strikes leave right whales with agonizing injuries that often lead to death within days or weeks,” says the IFAW. “Weighed down by hundreds of pounds of fishing gear, entangled right whales are unable to move freely through the water, feed, and reproduce. Over time, they die a slow death from starvation or injury.”

In 2019, research led by an IFAW veterinarian had teams of biologists and veterinarians perform necropsies on right whales. They found that between 2003 and 2018, almost 90% of right whales deaths where the cause could be determined died from entanglement and trauma caused by vessels.

Conservationists are working on developing and implementing ropeless fishing gear as well as working with governments to lower vessel speeds and change some shipping lanes, particularly during migration season.

Chance to Recover

Each identified North Atlantic right whale is assigned a four-digit number in the Right Whale Catalog which is maintained by the New England Aquarium on behalf of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. More than 700 right whales have been cataloged so far through the years.

Researchers often also give nicknames to whales that have unusual physical characteristics or that have a compelling story in the community or habitat where they are spotted.

Researchers from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife collected video and a skin sample from the newly spotted calf in order to do a genetic workup.

“We are encouraged to see the newly born North Atlantic right whale calf off the coast of Georgia right now. Each birth offers a chance for this critically endangered species to recover, but unfortunately, the Fisheries Service has failed to implement adequate protections for right whales, as required by law,” says Gib Brogan, a fisheries campaign manager at ocean advocacy group, Oceans.

“As they head back north, they face a myriad of threats, including thousands of speeding boats and a maze of fishing lines—all of which can cause serious injury and death. Our government needs to step up and put effective safeguards in place to give these whales a fighting chance at survival.”

View Article Sources
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