This year is shaping up to be yet another rough year for large mammals on the brink of extinction. In March, the last male northern white rhino died, reducing that species to just two females. And now, for the first time ever, the North Atlantic right whales’ calving season has produced no babies—and this is after nearly 20 of the whales died off the East Coast in recent months.
But while this development pushes these highly-endangered animals closer to the edge, scientists believe they’re not a lost cause—yet.
“We’re not giving up on these whales,” Dr. Moira Brown says of the 450 right whales that still call the North Atlantic home. Brown, a research scientist for Boston’s New England Aquarium and Campobello, New Brunswick’s Canadian Whale Institute (CWI), acknowledged that the whales are facing a dire situation.
“If we keep going the way we’re going…the species could become reproductively extinct in less than 25 years.”
Right whale calves are typically born between December and March, off the coast of Georgia and Florida. This year’s disastrous calving season is just the latest species-threatening development for the whales. As VICE Canada reported last summer, these giant creatures, which run as long as 18 metres, keep turning up dead. Between June 2017 and January 2018, 18 deceased whales were found. To make matter worse, “Last year we lost two known breeding females and two that were on the cusp,” said Brown, who explained that only around 100 potential right whale mothers are currently swimming off the eastern shore of North America.
“This is the real key number for perpetuating the species.”
Normally an average of 17 calves are born a year, while just under four whales die. But the last few years have been anything but normal for the whales.
Dr. Charles Greene, director of the ocean resources and ecosystems program at Cornell University, explained that due to warming ocean waters impacting their favourite food, a zooplankton known as Calanus finmarchicus, the whales have shifted where they dine.
“We think the right whales are abandoning their traditional foraging grounds in the Gulf of Maine and going up into Canada,” he told VICE.
Specifically, they’ve been turning up in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, where Greene says “They don’t have all the protections that they have in the Gulf of Maine,” since right whales haven’t historically lived there in large numbers.
Results from the nine necropsies that scientists were able to perform showed that blunt force trauma, likely due to ship strikes, killed six, while another three died due to entanglement with fishing gear.
While there’s little mystery around what’s killing adult whales, the lack of calves is a different story. “That surprises me,” said Greene.
He suspects that the whales’ food supply is playing a role, something Brown agrees with.
“In wild animals, it’s not uncommon for females to skip a year of reproduction if there’s no good food availability,” he said. Greene explained that while the whales’ new feeding grounds should be full of the zooplankton they love to eat, he’s yet to see any data that can confirm or deny that thesis.
Increased encounters with fishing gear may also be playing a role in the lack of calves, “Females that have been entangled tend to have a lower reproductive output,” said Brown.
While we can’t fatten up potential mom right whales, we can take steps to reduce their interactions with humans. “The mortality that we’re seeing is due to human activity; we need to get ropes and ships out of their way and then they stand a good chance,” said Brown.
The government of Canada agrees. Since last summer, it’s been rolling out measures, mostly focused on the snow crab industry, to help the whales. During a March 28 press conference—where further action including new speed restrictions, opening and closing the snow crab season earlier and increasing whale surveillance were announced—Dominic LeBlanc, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said: “We don’t think it’s too late. We think that if don’t act in a very robust way, we’ll set on course a very tragic outcome.”
Avoiding that outcome won’t be easy but Brown believes it’s possible, especially since Canada’s fishing and shipping industries are largely supportive of the whales. “They are engaged in trying to solve this problem and they are willing to take measures,” she said, adding that so far this year, the CWI has been asked by nine local fishing associations to give presentations to their members on the whales.
While Greene is more reserved about the whales’ future, he is pleased with what the Canadian government has proposed.
“It was much more than I was expecting,” he said, although he also voiced caution. “If feeding conditions are good up in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and we can reduce these mortality rates, then right whales should be able to recover.”