North Atlantic Right Whales Having Best Calving Season in Years

Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

On Tuesday, as the new First Family entered the White House, another new family was spotted in Georgia, and it has marine advocates just as excited. NOAA fisheries announced the thirteenth spotting of the season of an endangered North Atlantic right whale calf off the coast of Georgia. The calf, seen accompanied by its mother, is her first. With two months still left in calving season, experts are hopeful that the number of new calves this year will exceed expectations.

Why This Matters: The North Atlantic right whale was listed as endangered in 1970 and deaths have been outpacing births since 2010. 200 right whales died in the last ten years, almost entirely because of entanglements in commercial fishing ropes and vessel strikes. Since 2017, right whales have been experiencing what is classified as an “Unusual Mortality” event, with 32 deaths and 14 mortal injuries in the last 3 years alone. In that same timeframe, only 22 right whale calves were spotted. This resurgence offers newfound hope to advocacy groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Defenders of Wildlife, but there are only 70 estimated female right whales left.

 Baby Boom

In 2020, two newborn calves were killed by vessel strikes. “Right whales face a daily gauntlet of fishing ropes and speeding vessels, which together have caused the deaths of more than 200 right whales in the last decade alone,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We’re killing right whales far faster than they can reproduce. Unless we move quickly to abate these threats, we’re running out of time to save the species from extinction.”

NOAA previously passed protections for the North Atlantic right whale, limiting ship speeds in waters off the coast of New England and Long Island, NY. But the agency allowed those protections to expire, prompting Defenders of Wildlife to file a lawsuit challenging the agency’s failure to expand slowdown zones. But NOAA isn’t the only federal actor who has failed the whales.

Despite being protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Trump administration ignored warnings from NOAA in order to continue to perform seismic surveys in the species’ territory. On the opposite side of the country, the Trump administration expanded naval training drills in the Pacific, home to the North Atlantic right whale’s cousin, the North Pacific right whale. Trump also rolled back protections for many other species during his term, only furthering rapid biodiversity loss experts are now calling the next “mass extinction” event.

While these births are cause for celebration, they’re a sobering reminder of what could be lost if humans don’t clean up their act. Advocates like Davenport don’t plan on relaxing anytime soon. “While these births are an encouraging sign, the continued threats underscore that we still have to redouble our efforts to protect these vulnerable babies and their mothers,” she said.

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