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Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales continue to face threats during calving season

Right whale #3343, a 20-year-old male, was found deceased in the surf on Virginia Beach. (Credit: Virginia Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #24359.)

By Hannah E. Jones

There are about two months left in the North Atlantic right whales’ calving season — a crucial period for the critically endangered species. So far, researchers have spotted 12 calves around the Southeastern aquatic birthing and nursing grounds, far too little to sustain the species.   

For reference, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 20 newborns per calving season would be considered a relatively productive year, but 50 or more are needed for multiple years in a row to stop population decline. Last season, only 15 calves were identified.

Fifteen-year-old “Nimbus” was spotted entangled 13 miles from Jekyll Island, Ga. Responders were able to remove about 375 feet of rope, with only a short segment remaining. (Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Permit # 24359.)

While it’s encouraging to spot the increasingly rare aquatic mammals, not all of them are in healthy condition. In mid-January, SaportaReport reported on two disheartening sights: an entangled four-year-old female and, separately, a deceased lone calf. Within the last month, four additional whales were spotted entangled in rope along the East Coast and one deceased whale was identified with injuries consistent with a ship strike. 

These are tangible examples of what the statistics already show. According to NOAA Fisheries, when the cause of death could be determined, all juvenile and adult right whale deaths between 2003 and 2018 were due to human activities — ship collisions and fishing gear entanglement. Eighty-five percent of right whales have been caught in fishing gear at least once.

The sad news is these deaths are preventable. Multiple studies show that slowing boats to 10 knots reduces a North Atlantic right whale’s risk of death by boat collision by 80 to 90 percent. Experts are also exploring ways to develop on-demand fishing without the lines, particularly in the Northeast where the fishing practices with long, vertical lines — like lobster and trout pot fisheries — cause more entrapment issues than in the Southeast.

These bleak sightings come after the Biden Administration rejected Oceana’s emergency petition imploring the federal government to enact immediate protections for the species, rather than waiting until June. The petition was turned down in December, for the reason that NOAA doesn’t currently have the time or resources to effectively implement the emergency regulations. Additionally, the Maine delegation squeezed a last-minute provision into the 2022 omnibus bill that puts a six-year pause on new federal whale regulations.

“We are outraged that yet another North Atlantic right whale has become the victim of a boat strike weeks after Oceana demanded emergency protections from speeding vessels — and was denied,” Gib Brogan, leader of Oceana’s nationwide right whale campaign, wrote in a recent statement. “The blunt force trauma this whale experienced must have been excruciatingly painful and what’s worse: It was avoidable. Our government is moving at a snail’s pace to put effective safeguards in place that lessen the risk of boat collisions with North Atlantic right whales, despite the crisis that is unfolding off our shores.”

He added: “North Atlantic right whales weave through thousands of boats that travel in and out of ports up and down the eastern seaboard – directly in their migratory zone. Every day this rule is delayed pushes these whales closer to the brink of extinction.”

Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.


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