Right Whale Population May Be on Rebound

Gail Krueger
The Florida Times-Union
January 14, 2002
Right whales look good this year. They're fat, sleek, and shiny black.
Well-fed. The first mother-calf pair was sighted in Georgia last week
off St. Catherines Island.

Researchers anticipate a good year for right whale births in Georgia's shallow coastal water—the only known calving grounds for one of the world's most endangered large whales. Last year, 31 calves were born there; 27 survived into their first year.

Each calf is a precious addition to the small population of North Atlantic right whales, a population that, at around 350 adults, teeters on the brink of extinction.

Tracking Calving Trends

Right whales stay in the area from about mid-December until the end of March, depending on water temperature.

"We feel pretty hopeful. They just look healthy," said Chris Slay, a researcher with the New England Aquarium who spends summers observing right whales in Canada's Bay of Fundy, and winters watching the same whales off Florida and Georgia.

The whales ate well this summer and spent days playing and socializing—necessary precursors to mating and birth, Slay said.

For the last few years, El Niño and La Niña currents reduced production of copepods, the tiny sea creatures right whales eat, according to Stormy Mayo, a researcher at the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod.

This year, copepod production is up, meaning the whales have more to eat. Well-fed females are more likely to give birth, and to give birth to healthy calves. Whales give birth every two to three years; females take a long time to recover from the birth and nursing of their large calves.

"If you look at the trends over the years, there is anecdotal evidence that there seems to be two good years [for whale births] and three bad years," said Barb Zoodsma, a senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"Last year was a good year, but the year before we had no whale births. We haven't been collecting this data long enough to test it statistically, but there does seem to be this trend. All science starts with observation, then you pursue it statistically."

Monitoring Shipping Lanes

So far, the elaborate network of observers in light airplanes and small ships that makes up the whale early warning system has confirmed five right whale sightings.

The goal for the system is to tell ships when whales are in the area so ships can steer around them. This year, the Georgia Ports Authority is funding a paging system that allows observers to communicate with harbor pilots, the Navy, and Coast Guard, who in turn contact commercial ships.

The ports authority "is a vital cog in the whole system," Zoodsma said. "We are very pleased they have contributed in this way."

Strikes by ships and entanglement in some types of fishing gear are the biggest threats to right whales. And although the early warning system has worked well with commercial and military vessels in the calving area, right whales are still being hurt elsewhere.

Slay described a female whale that had been struck by a large yacht or other recreational craft. She suffered "horrible" cuts on her back that did heal.

Such a wound would have killed a calf, Slay said.

The problem is many pleasure boaters coming south in the winter do not realize whales are around, Slay said. He hopes to put up posters in area marinas to warn boaters about right whales.

The right whale is 45 to 55 feet (14 to 17 meters) long and can weigh up to 70 tons. There are three types of related animals—the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern Oceans right whales.

The North Pacific is most endangered, but the North Atlantic is also in trouble, with only about 350 adults. The Southern Oceans right whale is recovering.

Observers have reported sighting about 100 newborn calves among the Southern right whale herds.

Copyright 2001 The Florida Times-Union

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