File photo: Southern right whales, known in Spanish as ballena franca austral, swim in the waters of the Atlantic Sea, offshore Golfo Nuevo, argentina’s Patagonian village of Puerto Piramides, September 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Maxi Jonas)
SAVANNAH, Georgia. – SAVANNAH, Georgia. (Novum / AP) — The winter calving season for the endangered right whales will be closed without a few newborn spotted from the south-east of the V. S. coast, a reproductive drought unseen for three decades that the experts say that bringing the rare species a dangerous step closer to extinction.
“It is a crucial moment for right whales,” says Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the right whale recovery program in the united states South east for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “If we do not seriously and sort this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end.”
Researchers have been looking since December for a newborn right whales off the coast of Georgia and Florida, where pregnant whales usually migrate in the winter to give birth in warmer waters.
Trained spotters in aircraft that spend the season scouting the waters for mother and calf pairs found nothing this season. They take the work as the month ends Friday.
Zoodsma said that they do not expect that there will be a last-minute calf sightings. If they are the same, it will be the first year, whale spotters have recorded zero births since the survey flights began in 1989.
The timing could hardly be worse. Scientists estimate only about 450 North Atlantic right whales remain, and the types of suffering are terrible in 2017. A total of 17 right whales washed up dead in the U.S. and Canada last year, much faster than the five births.
When no response to the births of the last winter, the population shrinks further in 2018. A whale was found dead off the coast of Virginia in January.
“It is really alarming,” said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston who has studied right whales for three decades. “After a year of such high mortality, it is clear that the population is not able to maintain that trajectory.”
Right whales have an average of about 17 births per year in the last three decades. Since 2012, his two seasons have produced below-average calf counts.
Scientists are looking for the newborn left behind when the whales return to their feeding grounds off the northeastern u.s. this spring. That happened last year, when the two-before-seen babies were spotted in Cape Cod Bay.
Whale researcher Charles “Stormy” Mayo of the Center for coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said he is hopeful the number of calves were born this season from the Carolina’s or Virginia, where scientists were not really looking.
It is also possible right whales can rally with a baby boom next year. Women typically take three years or longer between pregnancies, so births can fluctuate year-on-year. The previous rock-bottom year for the birth, only one calf spotted in 2000 was followed by 31 newborns in 2001, the second-best calving season at the plate.
“I still think that next year or the year after that, we could see dozens of right whales calving down here,” said Clay George, a wildlife biologist who oversees the whale research for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
With future births is uncertain, researchers say more needs to be done to prevent human causes of right whale deaths. Autopsies performed on the 17 dead whales last year, at least four were hit by ships and at least two died from entanglement in fishing nets.
Hamilton said speed restrictions on ships in the waters where right whales are most often found can be expanded throughout the east coast, to further protect the giant mammals as they roam. Meanwhile, some commercial fishermen to test gear with ropes that have built-in weak points are designed to break rather than entangle a whale. Others work on ropeless lobster pots that use inflatable bags to fall to the surface.
“It all has to happen quickly,” Hamilton said. “We can’t handle waiting 10 or 20 years.”
Some conservationists try to force immediate change. The groups Defenders of nature and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in January, said the federal government has failed to protect right whales, as required by the Endangered Species Act and called for the new regulations on the fishing industry.
Scientists suspect entanglements are partly to blame for fewer whale births. Even in cases that are not fatal, the researchers say that the tension on the fall of the females probably makes pregnancies more difficult.
Research has shown that most women right whales are now dying by the age of 30, less than half of their expected life. And the adult females that had babies last year, identified by a unique pattern on their heads, which were at the birth for the first time in seven or eight years — more than double the span between pregnancies.
“Now, the sky is falling,” Zoodsma said. “I think we can turn this around. But it’s a bit like, what is our willpower to do that? This is a time for all hands on deck.”