Right Whale Breeding Season Ends with No New Calves

There’s dire news from NOAA, about the endangered North Atlantic right whale population.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service conducted their spring aerial survey of right whales’ calving grounds, and for the first time in survey history, they did not see a single right whale calf born this season. Babies are typically born between December and late March, off the Southeastern U.S. coasts. With a total population believed to be around 450, the North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

The most recent fatal fishing line entanglement, in Virginia Beach. Photo: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA permit #20556

In 2017, five calves were born, but 17 whales died. That’s about four percent of their total population, and NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event back in August to investigate the deaths. Of the 17 North American deaths, at least six of the whales died of blunt force trauma (likely boat strikes) and two died of entanglement from fishing gear. Many of the other deaths’ causes couldn’t be determined because of decomposition.

The latest reported right whale death was in late January, when a juvenile female was found off the coast of Virginia Beach, entangled in line. Based on the way the line was wrapped, scientists determined she was likely still alive and swimming when she became entangled.

The New England Aquarium has analyzed many of NOAA’s aerial photos and determined that 85% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

There are currently Unusual Mortality Events in place for a total of three different whale species in the Atlantic, the most NOAA has ever seen at one time. Investigations are also underway into the numerous recent deaths of minke whales and humpbacks, as Bay Bulletin reported back in February.

NOAA and a growing group of partners now offer a mobile app, Whale Alert, to help stop vessel strikes on whales. NOAA’s North Atlantic Right Whale Sighting Survey feeds its survey information to the app, to inform ship captains where right whales are and how to avoid them. To download the free app on the Apple App store or on Google Play, click here.

-Meg Walburn Viviano