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

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