Endangered Right Whales Have Birth Rate Scarcity In Nearly 20 Years

First Posted: Apr 13, 2017 04:10 AM EDT

Scientists are troubled about the number of calves birthed by endangered north American right whales last winter. The low number may be evidence of the species' population decline.

According to The Seattle Times, there are only about 500 right whales alive today, and each winter, they migrate to the warm Atlantic waters in Georgia and Florida to give birth to their young. On average, there are about 17 newborn whales every year, but only three added to the population this year. It is the lowest since 2000's single newborn.

A single bad year does not automatically mean trouble. After all, reproduction does fluctuate from time to time. However, Clay George, a wildlife biologist and overseer of the right whale surveys for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said that researchers have seen below-average birth rates since 2012.

He said that the preliminary data showed a flat or declining population, but this should not be a cause for alarm yet, as the population did a turn after 2000's all-time low. After the single new calf that year, the whales rebounded, with 31 newborns in 2001. Providence Journal noted that the highest number was in 2009, with 29. But since then, numbers have considerably dropped.

Also for the first time since 2001, there have been no first-time mothers among the birthing whales this season. However, the three whales that did give birth have not had babies for about eight years, which is twice the typical span between whale births.

Another evidence that the right whales may have been struggling is the smaller number seen in waters between New England and Nova Scotia, where they used to be seen gorging on planktons. Philip Hamilton, a right whale researcher from Boston, said that this points to potential food shortage. However, among the reasons for their migration to Cape Cod Bay is the rich plankton bloom.

Unfortunately, there are still concerns regarding the quality of the food supply. While there is no sure reason yet, Charles Mayo, a right whale habitat expert, noted that "it could be climate change, natural variation in the ecosystem, it could be human activity."

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