First Right Whale Calf of the Season Was Just Spotted

They are one of the rarest marine species.

A right whale calf and mother
A right whale calf and mother.

NEAQ/ Scientific Research Permit under NMF/NOAA

The first North Atlantic right whale calf of the 2022 calving season was spotted with its mother off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. 

A boater noticed the newborn calf on Nov. 10 and the sighting was later confirmed by officials from Georgia, Florida, and the federal government, according to Danielle Kessler, U.S. director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). It was also logged into the WhaleAlert app which helps boaters, fishermen, biologists, and volunteers track whales and help avoid collisions.

“This sighting is especially important as it comes after recently released data revealed an alarming 8% population decline for this critically endangered marine mammal over the previous year, again putting the species on the precipice of extinction. The population now stands at only 336 individuals,” Kessler tells Treehugger.

“Every new right whale calf count brings us potentially one step closer to recovery and we are hoping that this first calf is one of many for this season that usually stretches from mid-November to early March along one of our ocean’s most industrialized areas.”

Last year, 18 right whale calves were spotted, which was the highest number since 2015. In the past, rates were about 23 calves per season. However, the number of calves born keeps dropping, Kessler says, with only 42 right whale calves born since 2017.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered with their population decreasing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are one of the rarest of all marine mammal species, says IFAW.

About Right Whales

Right whales have stocky black bodies with knobby white patches of rough skin on their heads. They have no dorsal fins and short, broad pectoral flippers. Calves are about 14 feet when they are born and adults can grow up to 52 feet.

Right whales got their name from being the "right" whales to hunt because they moved slowly and floated when they were killed, reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

They aren’t hunted in the North Atlantic anymore, but mostly face threats from entanglements in fishing gear and vehicle collisions.

“The population has been steadily declining for a decade and now hovers dangerously on the brink of extinction. Primary dangers to North Atlantic right whales are anthropogenic. These animals are not dying of old age—most of their deaths are due to human causes,” Kessler says.

“Between 2003 and 2018, research found that for right whale death cases where cause of death could be definitively determined, nearly 90% were due to two human causes: entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strike.”

Calving Season Changes

Each calving season, female North Atlantic right whales migrate from cooler areas where they feed along the East Coast of North America to warmer waters off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to give birth. Calving season typically starts around mid-November and goes through early March.

“It is difficult for scientists to make any predictions regarding the number of right whale births in a particular calving season,” Kessler says. “Hence, all we can do is put in place measures that protect the mom and calves and thus hope to have a successful season.”

In the last two years, three right whales calves were killed because of vessel strikes off the Southeast coast.

“To remedy this, there must be improved compliance with seasonal vessel speed reduction measures as well as additional slowdowns and protected area designations for habitats critical to the right whale. This must be the case for commercial vessels greater than 65 feet in length as well as vessels of smaller sizes transiting critical habitat areas,” Kessler says.

IFAW is working with port authorities on the East coast to raise awareness and compliance with seasonal speed restrictions via the WhaleAlert app.

While vessel strikes typically kill whales on impact, gear entanglements can cause injury and pain for many months or even years.

“Weighed down by hundreds of pounds of fishing gear, entangled whales are unable to move freely, suffering from chronic stress and injury and impacting their ability to reproduce. These whales often die a slow and excruciatingly painful death from drowning, starvation, or injury,” Kessler says. 

One study found that nearly 85% of North Atlantic right whales show scars from being entangled at least once in their lives; about 60% have been entangled more than once.

One solution can be found in novel fishing equipment.

“On-demand, or ‘ropeless’ fishing gear, is an innovative technology that removes the need for vertical lines in the water, except during the moment of active retrieval, therefore dramatically reducing the risk of entanglement,” Kessler says.

IFAW is working with fishermen and women to test and fund this equipment to protect whales from becoming entangled while preserving the people’s livelihoods.

Why Right Whales Matter

All whales are important for the marine ecosystem. 

“First, they help nutrients transfer that enhance phytoplankton productivity, the baseline of the ocean food chain. Second, they contribute to the ocean’s carbon sequestration. Whales store carbon in their bodies throughout their lifetime, similarly to the way trees do on land,” Kessler says.

“Scientists estimate that one whale can remove on average 33 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere during their lifetime. Hence, their loss could have unimaginable repercussions to the marine ecosystem.” 

The IFAW has a “Don’t Fail Our Whale” campaign, working to save the right whale through education, advocacy, and community engagement.

“The first thing you can do is simple: familiarize yourself with the issue. The majority of the public has never heard of the North Atlantic right whale. This must change,” Kessler says. “This is an iconic species that is largely responsible for the initial success of East coast communities hundreds of years ago. It is part of a rich cultural history and must be acknowledged if it is to be saved.”

The group also suggests pushing support for the federal SAVE Act, which would allocate $5 million annually to find solutions to save the right whale. People living along the coast can also spread awareness about seasonal reductions in vessel speeds.

“In addition to saving fuel and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and underwater noise, lowering vessel speeds immediately helps save right whales,” Kessler says. “Just as we proceed with caution when driving our cars through pedestrian crosswalks, slowing down high-speed vessels in critical whale habitat means improved safety for whale and people on the water.”

Finally, they suggest saving whales by choosing sustainably caught seafood.

“Ask around. Demand it at your local grocers and seafood store. Shop responsibly and sustainably,” Kessler says. “The actions we take today will determine the future of this majestic species.”

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  2. Danielle Kessler, U.S. director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)