The Birth of Hope for Right Whales

There isn’t often much good news to share when it comes to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, but newborn calves spotted off the coasts of Georgia and Florida are signs of hope for the species. The news could not come at a more critical time — in 2018, for the first time since surveys began nearly 30 years ago, not a single calf was sighted. In a species numbering no more than 411 surviving individuals, each right whale is critical to the survival of the species and each new calf a cause for celebration.

Right whale Catalog #2791 and her less than 2-week-old calf sighted 10 nautical miles off Fernandina Beach, FL — January 6, 2019. Photo Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556–01

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered of all large whale species. Although originally decimated by historical overexploitation by the whaling industry through the 1930s, in recent decades other human-caused threats such as vessel collisions and entanglements in fishing gear have prevented the species’ recovery. Indeed, because of their slow swimming speed and tendency to swim near the surface of the water in coastal areas, the species became known to early whalers as the “right” whale to hunt. Although whaling no longer threatens its survival, these same attributes make the right whale especially vulnerable to collisions with ships and entanglement in the vertical buoy lines of fixed fishing gear, such as gillnets and lobster and crab traps and pots.

This is the second confirmed calf of the 2018–2019 calving season. The mother has been preliminarily identified as Catalog #3317, and researchers hope to see the pair again soon to collect more photographs. Photo Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, photographed from land.

Entanglements and ship strikes not only kill whales but impede population growth and recovery. In fact, the population has steadily declined since 2010. Researchers have found that more than 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. Even if these entanglements don’t kill right whales outright, they can cause long, painful deaths from injury and infection. But non-lethal entanglements also threaten the species’ survival: because dragging heavy fishing gear is exhausting and can impair swimming and feeding, entanglement causes whales to expend more energy, reducing the calving rate. This statistic, combined with the fact that there are fewer than 100 reproductively active females left, makes the birth of new calves nothing short of miraculous.

A right whale calf begins to surface amidst an ocean of cannonball jellyfish. Photo taken off Amelia Island, FL — January 6, 2019. Photo Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556–01.

Without swift intervention, the North Atlantic right whale may decline towards effective extinction within a few short decades. The SAVE Right Whales Act, introduced in the last Congress by Senator Booker (D-NJ) is a good start towards the national investment in their survival these whales desperately need. The Act would provide a vital, sustained source of federal funding for research to develop innovative technologies to reduce human threats to the species’ existence. Specifically, it would authorize $5 million a year over the next 10 years to fund the research and development of new fishing technologies to eliminate the risk of entanglements or new technologies to lower the odds of ship strikes. Congress should also support the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recommendation for an additional $5 million for right whale conservation. Now, right now, is the time for congressional leaders to act to save the North Atlantic right whale.

Contact your elected officials and tell them to co-sponsor and support the reintroduction of the SAVE Right Whales Act in the next Congress:



Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.

Defenders of Wildlife

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Defenders works on the ground, in the courts and on Capitol Hill to protect and restore imperiled wildlife across North America.

Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.

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