Biologists assist a North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear. Photo courtesy the NOAA Photo Library.
It’s 2020, the year when even good news seems to come bundled with some aberrant horror – not just for humans, but for whales too.
Whale watchers on the Southeast coast were jubilant when 10 brand-new North Atlantic right whale calves were spotted early this year in the whales’ only known calving grounds, between South Carolina and Cape Canaveral. It was the best crop of babies in several years for the struggling species, of which there are believed to be perhaps 400 or so individuals left.
But in the months afterward, one of those newborn whales was spotted with severe injuries from a ship strike off Georgia and has not been seen since. Researchers presume it has died. Then, in late June, another right whale calf was spotted floating, dead, in the waters off the New Jersey shore.
That right whale calf, a male, happened to be something of a celebrity – and a former neighbor of mine along the northeast Florida beach. His loss was a particularly cruel emotional blow to the whales’ researchers, fans and supporters.
The calf was first seen off Georgia in December, traveling with his mother. He was the first known calf of that female, who is #3560 in the catalog maintained by the New England Aquarium. Most mother-calf pairs linger in the Southeast’s Atlantic coastal waters until late winter, and then begin a slow migration to Canadian summer feeding grounds.
These two had other plans. While most of us were locking down amid a spreading pandemic, they wandered far past the southern boundary of the whales’ normal winter range. They were spotted in the Florida Keys and in the Gulf of Mexico. By late March, they were seen heading southward along the western side of the peninsula. They are almost certainly the pair spotted vacationing in the waters off Miami Beach around the same time.
By April, many right whales gather in Cape Cod Bay to feed before continuing north. This pair continued to swim to the beat of their own drummer. They were last seen on April 6 near Cape Lookout, North Carolina, according to a report by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Rather than proceeding to Canada, they seem to have been distracted by the bright lights of the big city. Somehow they ended up in the busy shipping lanes of the New York Bight, the waters south of Coney Island. That is where the carcass of the whale calf was discovered on June 25, floating off Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, a few miles south of the harbor entrance.
After towing the calf’s body to shore, biologists discovered he had been a victim of at least two separate ship strikes. One set of wounds preceded death by several weeks; the scientists believe a second set, closer to the tail, to be the proximate cause of death.
At this writing, the calf’s mother had not been spotted since that April 6 sighting. Her fate was unknown.
The loss of the calves and their future breeding potential is a serious blow to the whale population. Fortunately, these are the only known losses so far this year. This stands in sharp contrast to several recent years, in which as many as 17 whales are known to have died, mainly from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The United States and Canada have both taken measures to protect the whales, although safer attachments for lobster traps have still not been widely adopted. Fishing crews, in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, are testing ropeless fishing gear this summer in Canada.
But again, good news comes tinged with bad news. With their numbers trending downward from early in the last decade, when there were more than 500 North Atlantic right whales, the whales are now listed as critically endangered – one step short of being functionally extinct in the wild. And there is no captive population of these large, surface-skimming plankton eaters.
The environmental group Oceana Canada reported that a voluntary ship speed limit is being mainly ignored in the Cabot Strait, which separates Nova Scotia from Newfoundland. In past years, this would not have meant much to the whales. But the animals have moved much of their summer feeding activity to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, spurning their former feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy to the south. To get to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they must traverse the strait and its traffic of interprovincial ferries, local fishing boats, and the big freighters and cruise ships that use the St. Lawrence Seaway.
A recent study using aerial photography found that the North Atlantic right whales are in far worse physical shape than their cousins, the Southern right whales. The southern whales are thriving in population groups off Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. Although the reasons for the difference are unclear, the much heavier shipping traffic on the North American East Coast and a comparative scarcity of food there are likely culprits.
The northern whales have been protected for some 85 years, since being hunted almost to extinction. But despite these protections, their population has never recovered to safe numbers. Now, as their breeding rate trends down, there is virtually no such thing as a sustainable harvest. The loss of every single whale hurts. Yet somehow, the loss of a child star like #3560’s peripatetic calf hurts a little bit more.