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In memoriam for North Atlantic right whales lost this season, but hope for recovery

By Guest Columnist PAULITA BENNETT-MARTIN, Savannah-based field representative of Oceana

Every year in the southern Atlantic waters off Florida and Georgia, people get excited to see rare North Atlantic right whales, especially moms with calves. That’s because there are only around 360 of these critically endangered whales remaining, so any sighting is special. These whales can travel more than 1,000 miles to reach our coast every year in the fall. Many of them are females coming here to have calves.

Paulita Bennett-Martin

As this calving season ends, Georgia’s attention turns to other species including sea turtles that come in the summer to lay eggs along our coastline. Some sea turtles are threatened or endangered making them are another focus of concern, and litigation, to the conservation community. Still, we cannot allow our attention to right whales to diminish just because they’ve left our waters until Fall. After all, they are Georgia’s official state marine mammal, since 1985. Georgia owes them the honor of protection.

Seventeen calves from the 2020-2021 calving season are still alive. While this is hopeful news, it does not mean that this species is on its way to full recovery. Scientists say that North Atlantic right whales require approximately 20 calves to be born every winter for the species survival. Research also shows that for the whale population to recover, this species can only sustain losing 0.8 animals per year – that’s less than one.

whale, pix 2

Before this male calf was found dead on a Florida beach, the calf and mother, Infinity, were sighted 16.5 nautical miles off Amelia Island, Fl. Infinity, Catalog #3230, is 19 years old and this is her first calf. Credit: FWC under NOAA permit #20556-01

Sadly, collisions with vessels and entanglements in fishing gear are continuing to decimate these whales. Since 2017, the future of the species has been under heightened threat from elevated numbers of dead or seriously injured whales, necessitating an Unusual Mortality Event (or UME), which is declared by NOAA.

For context, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a UME is a series of deaths that are unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response. In the case of North Atlantic right whales, the UME started in 2017, stretches across the U.S. and Canada, and has not been resolved. In almost four years, according to the latest report, there have been at least 34 deaths and 15 whales that have been seen with injuries.

North Atlantic right whales are undergoing one of the longest UMEs in history, with more than 10% of the current population being killed or imperiled. This is a dangerous setback for one of the more endangered large whales on the planet.

Whale, pix 1

The calf of Infinity was found beached at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, FL., where measurements were taken Feb. 13. Injuries of the dead calf were consistent with a vessel strike, including fresh propeller cuts on his back and head, broken ribs, and bruising. Credit: FWC/Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries permit #18786

Every year when North Atlantic right whales come back to Georgia, I am filled with hope for a strong calving season. It is one more chance to help bring our gentle giants back from the brink of extinction. But I am also at a loss when I hear the death toll increase each year. When the whales make their migrations, over 1,000 miles in distance, every year I worry about the threats they face along their voyage. They deserve healthy, safe, and abundant oceans. As this calving season comes to an end, it is important to be hopeful. After all, we did have 17 whales born. This should send us a powerful message: the species wants to survive. On the other hand, we must acknowledge the losses, because every loss is a tremendous blow to the right whale to save.

In memoriam for the whales recently lost:

The start of calving season was marked with the death of a newborn male calf off Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina. It is likely the calf died during birth or shortly after. Once the calf washed ashore, an adult whale, perhaps its mother, swam circles nearby. People on shore observed that this whale stayed nearby until sunset–her own memorial of sorts.

In mid-February, another dead North Atlantic right whale calf was discovered along Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Fl. with marks suggesting he died of a fatal vessel strike. Days later, the calf’s mother Infinity was also observed off our coast of Georgia with several injuries suggestive of vessel strikes. The calf is thought to be the first for 19-year-old Infinity. The calf’s grandmother, Naeves, was last seen in 2019, and the grandfather named Crabscar was last seen in 2007.

Nauset and her calf were sighted about 13 nautical miles off Sapelo Island on Dec. 28, 2020. Nauset, Catalog #2413, is 27-years-old and this is her fourth calf. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, NOAA permit #20556-01

Then later in the calving season, an 11-year-old male whale named Cottontail was found dead off Myrtle Beach in South Carolina due to injuries from fishing gear entanglement. Two weeks earlier, Cottontail was observed entangled in fishing gear. A disentanglement team was deployed to help the whale, but they were unable to reach him due to harsh weather conditions on the ocean during their mission. His story ended shortly thereafter. While Cottontail’s father is unknown, his mother is #3108 and she has not been spotted since 2011.

For Georgians, these are our whales, and the symbol of our great ocean state. We must prevent future obituaries like these and help this species recover. In lieu of flowers, North Atlantic right whale supporters can ask our elected leaders to protect this critically endangered species to prevent future deaths. We can honor these whales by signing petitions and pressuring decision-makers to do more for this species.

Giza and her calf were sighted 26 nautical miles east of the St. Johns River Entrance on March 4. Giza, Catalog #3020, had been sighted in the Southeast U.S. calving grounds earlier last winter, but this is her first sighting with a calf. Catalog #3020 is at least 21 years old and this is her third calf. She last gave birth in 2011. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA permit #20556-01

To reduce threats to North Atlantic right whales, we must reduce the amount of fishing gear in the water and require vessels to slow down and keep their distance. Current measures are simply not enough to safeguard North Atlantic right whales. The government has the responsibility to strengthen protections and prevent extinction, but leadership must step up, and we must demand it. Members of Congress, NOAA and our federal leaders must do more for these rare whales so that we do not see the first large whale species go extinct in the Atlantic Ocean in centuries. That is an obituary we cannot let happen, and we can prevent it if we act now.

Notes to readers:

  • The federal review for rules that would impact North Atlantic right whales can be seen online.
  • NOAA provides updates from the North Atlantic right whale calving season here.
  • Paulita Bennett-Martin is the Oceana representative for the state of Georgia, serves on the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and is founder of Whale Week Savannah. Her lifelong love is the ocean, and she is driven to help ensure all voices are heard for the oceans – the oceans unite us. More information is available at Oceana.

 

 

 

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