A record number of North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) calves have been found in winter nursery waters off the coast of Florida and Georgia this winter. No less then 39 calves have been confirmed by researchers, a number which breaks the old record from 2001 when 31 calves where spotted.

The North Atlantic Right Whale is one of three right whale species belonging to the genus Eubalaena. Earlier, all three species were classified as a single species. Since 2001, only 20 calves have been born in these waters each year, on average, and 39 new calves in one season is therefore very good news for an endangered North Atlantic species that numbers only about 400 animals.

Right whales, for the first time in a long time, are doing their part: They’re having the babies; they’re having record numbers of babies,” says Monica Zani, an assistant scientist at the New England Aquarium who works with North Atlantic Right Whales. “We need to be vigilant and still do our part to prevent the whales from being killed“, she adds.

north atlantic right whale Endangered right whales might be on the rebound in U.S. waters

For me, personally, it is a source of optimism,” says Barb Zoodsma, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “I just think we’re on the right track.

It is however important not to put too much weight on one single year. “It’s definitely good news, and it’s the most that we’ve seen, but it’s only one year,” says Kate Longley, who works on a team with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to monitor right whales in Cape Cod Bay. “I think it would be premature to make any sort of prediction or any sort of statement about the state of the species based on one year of high calving. There hasn’t been much indication that the species is rebounding significantly.

To get from their feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine to their winter nursery areas off the coast of Georgia and Florida, the North Atlantic Right Whales have to migrate through areas with heavy shipping traffic and deaths from collisions with shipping poses a serious risk for this already depleted population.*

During recent years, several attempts have been made to decrease the amounts of deaths and injury from collisions, but it is too early to tell if these changes have contributed to the record number of calves.

In 2003, discussions between Irving Oil Corp. officials and Moira Brown, a Canadian expert on right whales and a senior scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, caused the corporation to shift shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy to protect the North Atlantic Right Whales. That same year, Canadian and international shipping officials agreed to shift shipping lanes in the bay between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, about four nautical miles east in hope of decreasing the risk of whale collisions. Four years later, the US government changed shipping routes out of Boston in an attempt to make the U.S. coastal waters safer for whales, especially the North Atlantic Right Whale.

Another problem faced by the North Atlantic Right Whale is fishing ropes. Today’s modern fishing ropes are strong enough to entangle a whale and rub through its tough skin and thick flesh, all the way into the bone. This year, researchers had to rescue five entangled whales in the southeast Atlantic, using small boats, knives and grappling hooks.

The calving season is now over and the North Atlantic Right Whales are heading back to feed in the Gulf of Maine. Hopefully, a large portion of the newborn calves will stay clear of both ships and fishing gear. If they survive for an additional 5-7 years, they will be able to reproduce and aid this dwindling population on its way to recovery.

* Vanderlaan & Taggart (2007). “Vessel collisions with whales: the probability of lethal injury based on vessel speed” (PDF). Mar. Mam. Sci. http://www.phys.ocean.dal.ca/~taggart/Publications/Vanderlaan_Taggart_MarMamSci-23_2007.pdf.