Conservation efforts in the Bay of Fundy appear to be paying off for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, with a record 39 calves being born this year. ((CBC))

Thirty years of conservation efforts in the Bay of Fundy appear to be paying off for the North Atlantic right whale, one of the rarest large mammals on earth, scientists say.

The species, once headed for extinction, is experiencing a baby boom, with 39 calves born this year, and 37 of them surviving.

That's the largest number documented since researchers from Boston's New England Aquarium started monitoring the whales in the Bay, off the basin of Grand Manan, N.B. The previous record was 31, set in 2001.

"I'd like to think we're moving towards a success story, of right whales being a success story in conservation," said Dr. Moira Brown, a Canadian biologist, who is leading the research team.

The goal is to help keep the right whales safe by documenting how many there are using photographs and an online database, tracking their habits and movements.

Endangered species

Right whales are born off the coast of Florida during the winter months, then head toward the Bay of Fundy, which serves as their summer home and most important feeding grounds.

Biologist Yann Guilbault, who works with the Canadian Whale Institute in Campobello, is encouraged. Every new whale gives him hope, he said.

"It makes you feel like you might be doing something to help their species recover."


Dr. Moira Brown is leading a research team from Boston's New England Aquarium, trying to protect the North Atlantic right whale. ((CBC))

There are only about 400 right whales left on Earth, making them one of the most endangered and closely watched species on earth, said Brown.

They are so rare that researchers identify each one not only by a number, but also a nickname.

Each whale has unique patterns of growth on its skin called callosities, which make it identifiable, explained Brown.

Some of them, such as the one called Houdini, also have other recognizable markings, she said.

"He's got scratches down the sides," from being trapped in fishing gear.

It has been illegal to hunt the right whale since 1935, but tangles in fishing gear and ship strikes continue to threaten the species, said Brown.

Conservationists have spent years lobbying to protect them and recently got shipping lanes changed through some areas where the whales congregate, such as the Bay of Fundy.

The federal government is also considering imposing fishing gear restrictions, such as lines that lie along the ocean floor, which could help reduce the chance of whales or other mammals from getting entangled, said Brown.

Despite these successes, there's still a long way to go to get right whales off the endangered list, she said.

"Really our challenge for the next 10 years is to continue to monitor the species to see if we're right. Have we made a difference?"