Boat strikes kill North Atlantic right whales

The news went from bright to dim in a matter of a few months for the threatened North Atlantic right whale, after spring calving saw more babies this year compared to others, but then boat strikes and ensnared fishing gear took a toll on the whales.

There were 19 calves spotted by scientists monitoring the mammals by plane, boat or floating buoys in their only known calving grounds off the coast of Georgia, north Florida and the Carolinas, according to the Georgia Department of Nature Resources.

That’s the most babies since 2013, but the news has not been good in the spring, with the whales leaving the warmer southern waters and returning to their regularly feeding grounds off the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coastlines.

The scientists, who can identify and name each of the whales by their body markings, spotted Juno and her calf, which had been hit by a boat within weeks of being born. The calf sustained severe wounds that threaten the mammal’s life.

A year-old female whale was found floating dead off Savannah, GA, and towed to Tybee Island where skull fractures and signs of blunt force trauma point to the whale being run over by a boat. The whale was videoed by scientists swimming just 10 days earlier.

This spring a North Atlantic right whale, the most threatened of the large whale species — with estimates of only about 360 remaining in the world — was spotted swimming in the St. Lawrence with fishing gear wrapped around its mouth.

Three of the 19 calves have disappeared, and are feared dead. A three-year-old female washed up on a Massachusetts beach in January with fishing rope embedded in her tail. That whale was spotted a year earlier trailing 200 feet of line.

And this spring, the New England Aquarium and Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute identified the remains of a 35-year old female whale, which had just given birth to its sixth known calf, with the carcass floating 50 miles off the coast of Virginia.

The whale was last seen healthy and with her calf in mid February off Amelia Island in north Florida. Aerial survey teams have been unable to locate the calf, and its not expected to survive without its mother. This marked the fourth documented North Atlantic right whale death in U.S. waters this year.

“The situation so far in 2024 for right whales highlights the fact that much more needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this species,” said Amy Knowlton, senior scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

“Each calf is critical. Research suggests that at least 50 calves a year are needed for right whales to recover, and 25-30 calves would simply stabilize their current numbers,” says the Georgia Natural Resources department.

“Right whales won’t calve their way out of this…which points to human-caused problems.”

Of the 360 North Atlantic right whales that remain, fewer than 70 are females capable of reproducing, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) based in the U.S.

“Both females were lost to a population that desperately needs them,” says a release by the Georgia natural resources department. “As winter fades and the right whales that migrated to the southeast start returning to foraging grounds off the northeastern U.S. and Canada, an Unusual Mortality Event continues to log deaths and injuries.”

The whale towed to Tybee Island off the Georgia coast was the 38th death since 2017. The number of seriously injured whales is up to 34.

“As a scientist, it’s challenging to feel optimistic granted what we’ve seen this season – the gauntlet of anthropogenic threats they face just to survive,” says Georgia-based senior wildlife biologist Jessica Thompson.

“Nineteen calves is a good amount but it’s not enough to change the tide on the possible extinction of these animals. Birth rate cannot be the only factor that changes.”

Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the two leading causes of serious injury and mortality to North Atlantic right whales.

In the U.S., NOAA has proposed lowering boat speed limits for vessels 35 ft. or larger in these water, to protect the whale, but some boating groups, like the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association, oppose the move, fighting the measure in the U.S. congress.

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