31 March, 2018
Wildlife researchers in Georgia and Florida are concerned about the population of endangered whales. The winter birthing season just ended, but no newborn sightings have been reported.
There are currently an estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales.
Since December, researchers have been looking for newborns off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. Each winter, pregnant female whales migrate to the area to give birth in warmer waters, usually from December to late March.
Barb Zoodsma oversees the right whale recovery program for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the southeastern United States.
"It's a pivotal moment for right whales," Zoodsma said. "If we don't get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end."
Last year, the number of right whale deaths was greater than the number of births. In the U.S. and Canada, there were 17 right whale deaths recorded, while only five right whale births were reported.
Research on the whales have found that most female right whales are only living only to half their expected years. Research on the whales that gave birth last year showed that they were having babies for the first time in seven or eight years. That is more than double the usual time between pregnancies.
Philip Hamilton is a scientist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Hamilton has studied right whales for 30 years.
He said, "Following a year of such high mortality, it's clear the population can't sustain that trajectory."
This is why researchers are saying more needs to be done to protect the species.
In January, conservationists like the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity took legal action against the U.S. government. They argued that it failed to protect right whales as ordered by the Endangered Species Act. The Center called for more restrictions on the fishing industry.
Philip Hamilton suggests that placing speed restrictions on ships in certain areas will help protect the whales further.
"It all has to happen quickly," he said. "We can't handle waiting 10 or 20 years."
Examinations of the 17 bodies showed that a ship had hit at least four of the right whales. Another two of the deaths were caused by fishing gear entanglement.
As a result, some fishermen are testing equipment designed to bring traps to the surface. Others are experimenting with equipment that will prevent large whales from being trapped in the first place.
Net trapping is not always deadly. But, scientists suspect that a trapping incident causes emotional effects that could harm a pregnancy.
Nonetheless, there is still hope for the right whale population.
As the whales return to their feeding areas this spring, scientists plan on looking for newborn stragglers.
Charles "Stormy" Mayo is a right whale researcher in Provincetown, Massachusetts at the Center for Coastal Studies. Mayo remains hopeful about the possibility that right whale babies were born this season a little further north, as far up as Virginia's coast.
In Cape Cod Bay last year, two calves were seen that had not been seen earlier in the south.
It is also possible that after a light birthing season this year, a baby boom could happen next year. This has been happened before. In 2000, only one newborn birth occurred while the following year there were 31 births.
Zoodsma said, "I do think we can turn this around. But it's sort of like, what's our willpower to do so? This is a time for all hands on deck."
I'm Rachel Dennis.
Rachel Dennis adapted this story for Learning English based on Associated Press reports. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
endangered - adj. used to describe a type of animal or plant that has become very rare and that could die out completely
pivotal - adj. very important
figure (something) out - phrasal verb. to understand or find (something, such as a reason or a solution) by thinking
mortality - n. the quality or state of being a person or thing that is alive and therefore certain to die : the quality or state of being mortal
sustain - v. to provide what is needed for (something or someone) to exist, continue, etc.
trajectory - n. used to describe a process of change or development that leads toward a particular result
migrate – v. to move from one place to live or work in another
straggler - n. : a person or animal that moves slower than others and becomes separated from them
calf - n. the young of various other large animals (such as the elephant or whale)
baby boom – expression. a time when there is a great increase in the number of babies born
all hands on deck – idiom. used to say that everyone is needed to help in a given situation