ELLSWORTH — Since the start of the annual calving season, researchers have documented 17 live births of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
That’s the highest number of births recorded since 2015, but still down significantly from births in 2007-2009. Zero births were recorded in 2018, and there were only 22 combined total births for the four-year period from 2017 to 2020, according to NOAA Fisheries.
While a hopeful sign, the birth rate by no means indicates that the species is recovering. There are fewer than 400 of the whales remaining on the planet, according to estimates.
Clay George, a biologist who supervises right whale surveys for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, told the Associated Press that there would need to be roughly two dozen births annually for the “population to stabilize and continue to grow again.”
Every North Atlantic right whale birth is critical. Scientists declared an Unusual Mortality Event for the species starting in 2017. Since then, 34 dead stranded whales have been reported (21 in Canada and 13 in the U.S.). Of the U.S. deaths, two were attributed to vessel strikes and seven to entanglement. The cause of death for three whales is listed as undetermined or pending. One calf died during birth or shortly afterward.
That unfortunate circumstance was the first documented birth of the season. The calf’s body washed ashore on a North Carolina island this past November. Another dead calf was found on the Florida coast in February.
The first live calf was spotted off Georgia in December. The mother, Chiminea, became entangled in U.S. trap pot gear in 2011, according to NOAA, but was freed.
Stress and injury due to entanglement are believed to be affecting fertility rates. A right whale pregnancy lasts a year and three years is considered a healthy spacing between births. However, females are calving every 6 to 10 years, on average, according to NOAA.
In the autumn, some right whales migrate from their feeding territory off New England and Canada to a calving area off the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia and northeastern Florida.
The future of the right whale is intertwined with the future of the lobster industry. NOAA is finalizing rules aimed at reducing the risk of entanglements. By court order, the National Marine Fisheries Service is required to finalize new regulations by May 31.
Maine lobstermen dispute the data used to draft the rules, which they say could devastate the industry.
“How can our government hold Maine lobstermen accountable for right whale deaths that we know are happening somewhere else?” said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and a Cutler fisherman. “It’s just not right and it will not save the whales.”