Georgia’s marine mammal, The North Atlantic Right Whale, numbers only 400.
By Brian Foster, Communications Director, The Georgia Conservancy
With an estimated global population of only 400, the North Atlantic right whale is in trouble, and a bipartisan measure from the U.S. Senate seeks to provide some much-needed help. The Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered Right Whales Act (SAVE Right Whales Act), introduced this September and co-sponsored by Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), would establish “a grant program to promote collaboration between states, nongovernmental organizations, and members of the fishing and shipping industries to reduce human impacts on right whales and promote the recovery of the population.”
The majestic North Atlantic right whale is the world’s most endangered large whale species, and it just so happens to be Georgia’s official marine mammal.
Each winter, the warm waters off the Georgia coast beckon our blubbery friends from the north. Arriving in late November and early December, calving North Atlantic right whales make their annual journey from the frigid seas of New England and Nova Scotia to give birth and rear young off of the temperate Atlantic coast of Georgia and Florida, the species’ only known calving ground. Since 1981, when these beautiful creatures were first spotted along our coast, each calving season has been met with great anticipation, and often anxiety, by right whale supporters.
The discovery of calving right whales on Georgia’s coast was first made by longtime Georgia Conservancy member Cathy Sakas. While serving as a naturalist on Little St. Simons Island in the early 1980s, Sakas happened upon a beached newborn North Atlantic right whale on the island’s north end.
“Finding this newborn whale was quite exciting,” recalls Sakas, who would later serve as education coordinator at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary and as a member of the Southeast U.S. Implementation Team for the Recovery of the North Atlantic Right Whale. “What was notable was that another newborn washed ashore on Ossabaw Island a month later and, prior to that, staff of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources had reported seeing an adult right whale the previous fall. These events led to the discovery of their seasonal migration pattern.”
Before this series of discoveries, researchers were not sure exactly where pregnant females disappeared to each fall to give birth.
The right whale is so named because, for whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries, the mammal was the “right whale” for hunting, as they moved very slow, floated to the surface when dead, and yielded the most of amount of oil per cubic foot than any other whale species.
After the hunting of right whales was banned in the 1930s, the population saw a slow increase from its lowest estimated population of less than 100. However, that trend has reversed in recent years. Since 2017, the deaths of 28 right whales have been confirmed, and as the species has an increasingly low birth rate, this is not a net positive equation.
Successful reproduction is a challenge for the North Atlantic right whale. Female right whales reach reproductive maturity at around 10 years of age. Historically, the species can give birth to only one calf every three to five years, yet increased trauma from entanglement and ship strikes have prolonged this interval to nearly 10 years. With an estimated population of less than 100 breeding females, every birth is cause for celebration.
Once born, the life of a North Atlantic right whale is fraught with danger and potential death. Sadly, leading causes of death for this endangered species are related to human activities: vessel collisions and fishing gear entanglement. Of the eight confirmed North Atlantic right whale deaths this summer in Canada, three of those deaths were the result of ship strikes.
Additionally, it is estimated that nearly 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. According to ocean conservation advocacy group Oceana, “dragging lines attached to heavy fishing gear slows [right whales] down, making it difficult for them to swim, reproduce and feed, and in some cases, can drown them.”
Another human activity, seismic air-gun blasting, which is used in the search for oil and gas located beneath the ocean floor, is an emerging threat to the North Atlantic right whale.
THE SAVE RIGHT WHALES ACT OF 2019
The bipartisan measure, introduced in September 2019, would authorize up to $5 million annually from 2019 – 2029 to projects that promote or contribute to the sustainability and recovery of the wild population of North Atlantic right whales through:
- the implementation of conservation programs
- the promotion of cooperative projects with foreign governments, local communities, the fishing industry, the private sector, and NGOs
- the development, testing, and use of innovative technologies
The SAVE Right Whales Act also encourages the coordination of North Atlantic right whale recovery efforts and projects between the United States and Canadian governments.
“The North Atlantic right whale was named the official Georgia state marine mammal when I served as minority leader in the Georgia State House, and I am proud that my state’s coast is still home to one of the few known calving grounds for this magnificent animal,” Senator Johnny Isakson said in a U.S. Senate press release. “I’m glad to introduce the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered Right Whales Act to help learn about how we can better protect this important beast whose numbers continue to dwindle.”
Research scientists, recovery teams, conservation advocates and whale lovers across the globe have given countless hours to save this incredible creature from extinction, and for these efforts, the Georgia Conservancy extends our unending gratitude and continued support. We would also like to thank Senator Isakson for his leadership in sponsoring this important piece of legislation, one which would help to enhance and extend the important work already taking place.
Please consider reaching out your Congressional representative in Washington to express your support of the SAVE Right Whales Act.
Featured Image: North Atlantic Right whale mother and calf by Georgia Department of Natural Resources