No calves born this year is a bad sign for endangered right whales

Published: March 26, 2018

Right whale adult and calf from above [Credit: Wikimedia commons]

No new North Atlantic right whale calves have been seen or reported this year, a worrying sign for a critically endangered species.

There are believed to be less than 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and they are often killed by ship collisions and entanglements in fishing nets. Eighteen right whales died in the last year, twelve of which were in Canadian waters.

The right whales, who spend summers off the coast of the Maritimes and the eastern United States, usually breed in the winter off Florida and Georgia. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducts aerial surveys to see how many calves are produced during the breeding season, but this year, none have been spotted.

“I’ve been working with right whales to one extent or another since the late ’80s, early ’90s and I have to say I have not been this concerned,” Barb Zoodsma, right whale biologist with the NOAA, told the CBC.

Last year, at the meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, scientists agreed that right whales may be only 20 years away from extinction.

Right whale from above, with mouth open
The Center for Coastal Studies performs aerial surveys of the whales to track their movement and breeding. [Credit Center for Coastal Studies]

Historically, humans hunted right whales for their oil. They gave them the name “right whale” because they were the “right” whale to hunt, due to their slow swimming speed and tendency to spend time near to land, as well as their oil production. Right whales have been protected from whaling since the 1930s, but their numbers have still been unable to recover, since human activities like fishing often kill them or block them from their breeding grounds.

While scientists haven’t seen any right whale calves this year, there is still a slim chance that they’re out there. “There is always a chance they will find something, but the overall lack of whales in the southeast does not bode well,” Philip Hamilton, of the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life in Boston, told the CBC.

Scientists have found that right whales are not living as long or reproducing as much as would be expected for whales of their size. Right whale females are living to be about 20 or 30 years old, and the oldest known right whale lived to be 75, but bowhead whales, who are fairly closely related, can live to be 100 or 200 years old. Right whale females should also be able to have calves every three years, but the North Atlantic right whales are currently calving about every seven years.

“So not only are the females not living very long, they’re having fewer calves for whatever reason,” said Zoodsma. “To me that’s a huge red flag. It suggests that something is awry with these females.”

There are only about 100 breeding females, Zoodsma said. “Things can turn south in a very big hurry and so we really need to get serious in finding solutions.”

Last year, Transport Canada imposed a 10-knot speed limit for vessels over 20 metres in part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in hopes of reducing collisions, but it’s uncertain if the limit will be imposed again this year.

But scientists believe that if right whales are to be saved, we need to take action now. As Amy Knowlton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, told the CBC last year, “I think if nothing changes, and soon, we could see the extinction of this species within several decades. I think we can reverse this trend but it’s going to take a lot of collaboration.”

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