13 new North Atlantic right whale calves recorded this season

·2 min read

Researchers say there's reason for some "guarded optimism" for the North Atlantic right whale population.

So far 13 new calves have been recorded this year off the coast of the southern United States.

That's more born in a single winter since 2016 and it's only about half way through the calving season.

"In 2018 we didn't have any calves born and we've had ten or less in most of the previous five years," said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the Anderson Cabot Centre for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. "So that's very positive news."

Submitted by Philip Hamilton
Submitted by Philip Hamilton

Calving season for North Atlantic right whales typically runs from the start of December to the end of March. So, it's possible this could be the first year in a long time the population hits a supposed reproduction average.

Hamilton said, given the current state of the whale population, scientists would expect an average of around 23 calves a year. That hasn't happened in years, likely due to the stress whales are experiencing finding enough food.

The North Atlantic right whale population have recently moved into unfamiliar and more hazardous waters in search of a dwindling food supply.

While there are some first-time mothers with calves this year, there are also several that haven't reproduced in a decade.

"On average a right whale should be able to give birth every three or four years, and some of the mothers that are giving birth this year have gone 10 or 11 years without calving," said Hamilton. "So, there's a backlog of whales that should be able to calve and it's really encouraging that they are."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01

Hamilton says he is optimistic about this year's calving season, but says it's important to put things into context.

"We really need to stop killing these animals," said Hamilton. "We've had 32 deaths between 2017 and now that we've detected, and we know that we're missing probably two-thirds of the deaths."

Hamilton estimates that as many as 100 of the whales may have died in the last four years.

Following necropsies, it was determined that many of them were killed as a result of blunt trauma likely due to being struck by passing ships. Being tangled in fishing gear was also often a reason for their deaths.

Both Canada and the United States have implemented restrictions to curb the number of North Atlantic right whale deaths in recent years.

"Clearly we're not doing enough," said Hamilton. "Not enough, when we have a population of around 350."