The North Atlantic right whale is already one of the most endangered creatures on earth, and all indications are its situation is rapidly getting worse.
At last count, the entire population was estimated to include just 458 animals, and at least 17 of them died last year. Now, researchers tracking the right whale’s normal calving grounds, from Georgia to Florida, said they have seen no signs of newborns yet this year, at a time when mothers would normally be birthing and nursing.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that at least 411 calves were born from 1990 to 2014, an average of about 17 a year. But only five were born in 2017, and if there really are no newborns this year, that would be “unprecedented,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass.
“I think we’re in a helluva pickle,” he said.
It’s possible, Dr. Mayo said, that the animals have simply moved elsewhere to give birth, and that at least a few new calves will be found later in the season.
“I will not be surprised, though I will be excited, if we see a calf or two in Cape Cod Bay,” said Dr. Mayo, whose research team tracks the animals in the bay.
Researchers fly over Cape Cod Bay daily this time of year, following and counting the animals. So far, he said, they have seen an unusually large number of animals, including females of reproductive age, some of whom would typically be farther south with newborn calves.
“The idea of so many of this extremely rare animal being in this tiny embayment is not comforting. Many should be elsewhere,” he said.
Whales are moving in unpredictable ways, Dr. Mayo said, because their food is being relocated by changes in ocean conditions.
Unusually high numbers of right whales turned up in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer, for instance, where they were not expected. The vast majority of animals known to have died were struck by ships or injured by lines set by fishermen, who didn’t expect them to be in the gulf.
“There were not management controls, because we didn’t know they would be there,” Dr. Mayo said.
From 2010 through 2014, nearly six whales a year on average were killed or severely injured, according to NOAA. Last year, at least 17 were killed.
Dr. Mayo thinks there may have been many more whose carcasses were never found, because they sunk to the ocean floor.
“We’re looking at the very real possibility of extinction,” he said.