Will the New Year bring good news for the North Atlantic right whale?

A decade ago, it was not uncommon to see 20 new calves a year. Only seven were born last year.

Industry and government need to be proactive to protect the endangered animal, expert says

A North Atlantic right whale swims in the waters of Cape Cod Bay in April. (AFP via Getty Images)

One of Canada's leading North Atlantic right whale experts says a "robust-looking calf" spotted multiple times in recent weeks is a good sign, but there is still a long way to go in helping the animals build up their population.

A decade ago, it was not uncommon to see 20 new calves a year.

Only seven were born last year.

"A single calf is encouraging, but we need a lot more, and we need it year after year," said Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute.

This season's first calf has been seen swimming beside its first-time mother along the coast of the southeastern United States between Florida and Georgia, the only known calving ground for the species.

Calving season typically runs from mid-December through early February.

In a phone interview, Brown said as the whales have undergone a habitat shift in the last decade, moving into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there has been a decline in reproduction and an increase in mortality.

"This population is getting hit on all sides," Brown said. "We remain hopeful that we'll have a good calving year."

Dwindling population

In 2019, there were nine right whale deaths in Canadian waters, and one off the coast of Long Island, bringing the total deaths in the last three years to 30, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

"It's devastating for this very small, endangered species," Brown said.

There are about 400 animals left, and less than 100 adult females.

"It seems like a lot of animals, but it's not very many."

Necropsies were done on five of the whales. As many as four of those appear to have died after vessel strikes. 

The DFO has identified vessel strikes and entanglements as two of the main culprits in right whale deaths.

The department monitors fishing gear to limit entanglements and enforces temporary fishing closures.

"Our fisheries management measures aim to protect endangered whales from harm, while minimizing possible impacts for industry and coastal communities," DFO spokesperson Benoit Mayrand said in an email.

Even if entanglements do not lead directly to death, Brown explained, they have sublethal effects, meaning the stress and injuries can result in an adult female taking years before producing calves. 

"We clearly need to do more," Brown said. "This animal cannot sustain this level of mortality."

Habitat shift having an impact

The researcher said there were no protection measures in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until a couple years ago, because the area is relatively new to the whales, so it was never considered a critical habitat.

She said the federal government's new measures have improved the situation, but more needs to be done.

Brown said it's important that government, industry and biologists work together to find a solution.

She also said if the three don't work together, it's possible the species could eventually become extinct.

"This area is new to the scientists, it's new to the whales in all likelihood, so we are learning," Brown said. "We just don't have much time, so we need to be as protective as we possibly can."

Brown said the federal government should be commended for putting restrictions in place in the St. Lawrence, and fishing and shipping industries deserve credit for their compliance, but more needs to be done.

"So far we've been in crisis mode, everybody is in crisis mode, the mortalities happen and then we react," she said. 

"Everybody is working together on this, it's a really hard problem," she said.


Spencer Van Dyk


Spencer Van Dyk is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. Previously, she was the Eastern Townships correspondent for CBC Quebec. Follow her on Twitter @spencerlynne.

With files from Brennan Neill


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