Is the Right Whale “Baby Boom” Really That?

22-year-old "No. 2791" swims with her calf off Amelia Island, FL. on January 7, 2019, the first of seven North Atlantic right whale calves sighted so far this season

Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA permit 20556-01

There has recently been a big media splash celebrating the North Atlantic right whale “baby boom.” The seven calves sighted so far this year deserve celebration and represent an emblem of hope that the species can recover if given the chance. It’s important, however, to put these numbers in a longer-term context; in doing so, it’s clear that much more still needs to be done to ensure the recovery of our endangered whales.

Seven calves are undoubtedly a vast improvement compared to the previous season when no new calves were born. However, 2019 is tied with 2012 as the third lowest calving year since 2009. A deeper look at the last four decades indicates that this season’s numbers still fall well below the mean: 1980-89: 10.4 calves per year; 1990-99: 11.4 calves per year; 2000-09: 22 calves per year; and 2010-2019: 12.2 calves per year.

New population modeling results show that human-caused mortality of adult females is the main factor limiting North Atlantic right whale calving rates and population recovery.

Death and painful injuries caused by entanglement in fishing gear mean that females are not living long enough or reproducing quickly enough for the species to survive. Almost all (83%) North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once and more than half have been entangled two or more times.

Dragging heavy fishing gear is extremely energetically demanding and can be comparable to the cost of a one-way migration. Females simply do not have the energy to reproduce under these conditions. Even if a whale breaks free from the gear, the stress caused by entanglement may continue to suppress a female’s ability to reproduce for months or even years. As a result, females are now only having a calf every ten years on average rather than every four years, as was usual in the past.

One of the five calves born over the 2016-2017 season was found dead last year, likely due to entanglement in fishing gear

Credit: IFAW, NOAA permit 18786-03

I’m sharing this not to discount the significance of the seven precious calves born this season, but rather to emphasize how important it is that we protect them and their mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins.

There are currently few protections in place to keep these new calves safe from entanglement and many other stressors. We’ve already lost one of the five calves born in the 2016-2017 season due to probable entanglement, and at least 20 whales have been killed in the last two years. Unfortunately, we’ve already received word that the “baby boom” messaging is being misused by the oil and gas industry to erode and limit current and future right whale protections.

We therefore need to keep up the fight to protect our right whales so that we have a reason to celebrate 10, 20, and maybe even 30 calves in future years.

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Senior Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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