Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Northern right whale mother and calf swimming off the Atlantic coast of Florida. There were no known calves born in the winter of 2017/2018.

Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, Nat Geo Image Collection

Bad Breeding Season Spells Trouble for Endangered Whale

Left unchecked, human activity killing the North Atlantic right whales could make them go extinct in 20 years, experts say.

This past winter has conservationists trying to save the North Atlantic right whale worried.

Their winter breeding season is currently ending, and no new calves have been seen. Births tend to peak in waters off the coast of Florida and Georgia in January and February. Experts say it's still possible that one or two may have been born but out of view of coastal monitors.

"I think everyone remains hopeful that whales will turn up on the feeding grounds with babies still," says Tonya Wimmer from the Marine Animal Response Society. "In some years... a few animals have turned up with a baby that wasn't observed on the breeding grounds. Usually most moms are observed there... maybe something was different this year and they decided to have babies elsewhere…we can only hope and wait to see."

The unproductive year comes on the heels of a historically bad 2017.

At least seventeen known deaths were recorded in waters off the coast of the U.S. and Canada in the past year—12 in Canada and five in the U.S.

It was nearly twice as many as were recorded in the five years prior.

Just under 450 remain in the whole population and, of those, there are only about 100 breeding females.

"It's adding insult to injury," says Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the executive director for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society's North America office.

Curious Baby Humpback Whale 'Dances' With Mom and Divers

Fewer and fewer calves are born every year, she says, and one reason scientists suspect this is happening is that female whales are not able to gain enough weight to become pregnant.

Entanglement, one of the specie's biggest threats, could also be causing females an undue amount of stress.

"What we see a lot of in the body count [is] they will carry gear with them for weeks, months, or years," she notes. "That [stress] factor lasts a long time...There's also stress associated with ship noise and ocean noise."

For an animal on the brink, not having more young to replace the old is bad news.


Before the 1930s, hunting dwindled the whale population. In fact, according to the WWF, they earned their name from hunters who deemed them the "right" whales to hunt.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the species began to make a comeback, but in the past decade they've again declined.

Entanglement and ship strikes account for most of the threats facing the species today. Many of the whales found dead in Canada this summer died because of blunt force trauma. For an animal as large as a right whale, ships are the only object capable of dealing the fatal blow.

"Right whales will be gone in 20 years if we do nothing," says Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Unlike endangered animals like chimpanzees, whales can't be bred in captivity. Human intervention to save their species relies on limiting impacts from commerce like fishing and shipping.

Baumgartner and other marine conservationists say they know how to pull North Atlantic right whales back from the brink, but they need buy-in from the public and governments to make it happen.

"Entanglement injuries are gruesome," says Baumgartner. "They would never be tolerated in view of the public."

Meaning, he says, if people could see the way fishing wire cuts through a whale's flesh, there would be a sympathetic outcry.

Taking Steps

Over the summer, in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence, an increase in the demand for snow crab led to more fishing lines being deployed and for longer.

"The ship strikes are still a little more mysterious," he says. "They may have been happening all the time and we just haven't been surveying there."

Meaning, more attentive ocean patrolling could add to the death count.

Following the spike in deaths in the gulf last summer, the Canadian government mandated a maximum speed limit for shipping vessels that was lifted this January.

Fisheries, on the other hand, require more complicated solutions. The industry is massive, and many people depend on successful hauls for their livelihoods. (As a whole, industrial fishing covers more than a third of the planet.)

Baumgartner says more breakable ropes, like those used before the 21st century, would more easily allow whales to break free, thus escaping entanglement.

"We could also develop rope-less fishing," he says. Earlier this month, he and the New England Aquarium held a workshop to brainstorm how to put this into practice on a large scale.

If dangers to right whales aren't mitigated now, both Baumgartner and Asmutis-Silvia say the species is likely to go extinct.

Asmutis-Silvia compares the issue to the vaquita porpoise, of which fewer than 20 now remain, but two decades ago had a population of about 400.

"This is preventable," she says. "We did this. We can undo it."