The tiny population of critically-endangered North Atlantic right whales may not have had any calves this year, scientists fear, in what would be an “unprecedented” calamity for the species.
At last count, the entire population was estimated to include just 458 animals, and at least 17 of them died last year – a record death toll. Most perished after they became entangled in fishing gear, especially ropes connecting surface buoys to lobster pots.
The whales usually breed from November to February, and have on average given birth to about 17 a year in the waters off the east coast of the US, from Georgia to Florida.
But only five were born in 2017, and if there really are no newborns this year, that would be “unprecedented,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
“I think we’re in a helluva pickle,” he said.
Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, agreed.
"Right whales will be gone in 20 years if we do nothing," he said.
Mr Mayo said it was possible that the whales had calved elsewhere, noting that their behaviour had become more unpredictable as the fish stocks move to different locations.
The whales, which can grow up to 60 feet long, feed mostly on small aquatic crustaceans known as copepods, and krill larvae. They can eat up to 5,500 lbs in a single day, with the animals feeding by swimming through a swarm of prey.
Unusually high numbers of right whales turned up in Canada’s Gulf of St Lawrence last summer, for instance. Some were killed by ships because the whales’ presence was unexpected, and so precautionary measures were not put in place. The whales are not usually frightened of boats.
He also noted that an unusually high number of females of reproductive age were currently in the Cape Cod area, which his team studies, rather than further south where they would usually be calving.
“The idea of so many of this extremely rare animal being in this tiny embayment is not comforting,” he told the New York Times. “Many should be elsewhere.”
Females breed about once every three to five years, and gestation is about one year. The single calf is then nursed for nine to 12 months.
Adding to the problem is the fact that the whales, unlike other endangered mammals such as chimpanzees, cannot be bred in captivity.
“We’re looking at the very real possibility of extinction,” said Mr Mayo.
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