A long-running annual survey of North Atlantic right whale reproduction has nearly concluded its 2018 run, and not a single newborn calf has been spotted. The lack of births this season portends a bleak future for the critically endangered marine mammal.
According to the Associated Press (AP), right whale biologists fly over the Atlantic waters off the coasts of Georgia and Florida during the December-to-March calving season each year in order to quantify how the species is faring. Over the past three decades, around 17 calves have been observed annually. Yet starting in 2012, the already low numbers began to show a downward trajectory.
Now, unless a last-minute sighting is made, 2018 will mark the first year that no births have been documented.
"It's a pivotal moment for right whales," Barb Zoodsma, leader of the southeastern division of the US National Marine Fisheries Service’s right whale recovery program, told the AP. "If we don't get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end."
An estimated 300 to 450 North Atlantic right whales now remain in the wild. First driven to the brink of extinction between the 17th and 20th centuries by whalers seeking baleen and oil, today's individuals are at risk of death from ship collisions and entanglement in fishing and crabbing gear.
Researchers were already on edge this year following an unnerving string of such fatalities noted in 2017. A total of 17 right whale carcasses were discovered on beaches along the US and Canadian coasts last year – more deaths than the past 5 years combined and significantly outweighing the increase in population seen that year (only 5 calves were spotted).
A small sliver of optimism remains, however, as it is possible that 2018 is simply an off year for right whale reproduction. Females of this long-lived, migratory species give birth to one calf every 3 to 5 years, meaning that we could see a surge of newborns in 2019 or 2020.
Yet even if birth rates begin to climb once more, the population will remain in peril until the causes of adult right whale mortality are addressed. Starting in 2010, the annual aerial survey has also been noting fewer and fewer adults, particularly males. The scientists attribute this pattern to an epidemic of increased ship collisions and entanglements, though why 2017 was so much worse than other years remains unknown.
In response to the recent deaths, scientists and activists at the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society joined forces to sue the Trump Administration’s Department of Commerce, a branch of the government that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The plaintiffs allege that NOAA has failed to properly protect right whales from the commercial fishing industry that it oversees and regulates, thus violating America's Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Meanwhile, Canadian policymakers have responded to the crisis by limiting crab-harvesting activity in the whales' summer habitat, and are looking to support the development of whale-safe fishing ropes.