Conservationists worry about right whales

A year ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for marine mammal conservation, estimated the population of North Atlantic right whales – the huge, critically-endangered animals we spot in our nearshore waters most winters – numbered around 400.

Today, at the start of the 2021 calving season here in Florida, researchers from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium – a group of hundreds of scientists, conservationists and resource managers headquartered at the New England Aquarium – estimate the population is actually down to 356.

And if that news isn’t bleak enough, they fear biological extinction by 2040.

“There’s still going to be some right whales out there, but they are not going to be able to reproduce,” said Julie Albert, right whale coordinator for the Palm Bay-based nonprofit Marine Resources Council.

Albert says the right whale population, which once numbered many thousands, now is being decimated by entanglement in fishing gear and strikes by big ships as the animals – which can be 45 feet long and weigh up to 50,000 pounds – make their way between their feeding grounds in the Canadian maritime provinces and their calving grounds off east-central Florida.

And the 2021 season already is off to a grim start, with the first known calf death occurring last month off Cape Lookout, N.C. – a male believed to have died during birth.

The 2020 season also brought bad news when a calf spotted with its mother by beachgoers in Vero Beach was found dead in New Jersey waters after being struck by two vessels in separate incidents several weeks apart.

But Albert remains hopeful the whales can avoid extinction.

Albert urged whale fans to lobby Congress to pass the SAVE Right Whales Act – a bill introduced in 2019 that would provide $50 million over 10 years to develop technologies to prevent vessel strikes and entanglements and track the whales’ plankton food supply.

She also encouraged locals to purchase specialty “Protect Florida Whales” license plates that generate funds for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, which funds ocean research and education projects.

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