Biologists monitoring the imperiled whales that usually give birth off the coast of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina documented 20 cow/calf pairs this winter — 19 in the Southeast and one in Cape Cod Bay.
While the annual average since 2000 is 21, this year’s total was a "far cry" from the seven calves in 2012, according to researchers.
Clay George, who heads right whale research for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the population is increasing at an estimated 2 percent per year.
Although calf production can vary widely year to year, a string of poor calving seasons could reverse the upward trend. There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left and fewer than 100 breeding females.
“It was another average season, which is just what we needed after such a poor showing last season,” said George, a wildlife biologist with the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Right whales swim from Canada and New England each year to bear their young in the Southeast’s warmer waters. DNR’s Nongame Conservation and Law Enforcement sections, along with the Coastal Resources Division, help staff from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other agencies monitor whales, respond to injured, entangled or dead whales, collect genetic samples for research and protect right whale habitat.
Researchers from Sea to Shore Alliance, NOAA and Florida Fish and Wildlife conduct aerial surveys along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coast during the cooler months. Survey teams send sighting information to the shipping industry, military vessels, and biologists conducting research from boats. The season’s last flight off South Carolina was April 15.
So far, six of the mom/calf pairs seen this winter in the Southeast have been documented in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, according to researchers with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Cape Cod Bay is a key feeding habitat for right whales.
Three of the whales with calves had once been entangled in fishing gear, including a mom named “Equator” that DNR and others disentangled from trap/pot fishing gear in 2008. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel collisions are the leading causes of death and injury for this endangered species.
One previously entangled whale, nicknamed “Wart,” was seen in Cape Cod Bay with a new calf. The pair was not seen in the Southeast this winter.
Only 15 non-breeding right whales were observed in the Southeast, mainly juveniles and adult males. For comparison, 45 and 99 non-breeding whales were spotted during the 2011-2012 and 2010-2011 seasons, respectively. George said it’s not known why those numbers have declined in recent years.
Seventeen of the 19 calves seen in the Southeast were sampled for genetics.
Twelve humpback whales and two fin whales were also spotted.
A 2-year-old right whale washed up dead on a north Florida beach Dec. 18. Preliminary findings suggest it died from entanglement. A length of rope more than two football fields long was wrapped around its tail. No other entangled whales were seen.
The operator of a recreational boat reported hitting what he thought was a right whale on Dec. 7. No injured or dead whale was found. Also, a calf was photographed in January with skeg and propeller wounds indicative of being struck by a recreational boat.
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