New England waters are seeing an unprecedented mini baby boom in the endangered North Atlantic right whale population, according to Cape Cod researchers.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest species of whale on the planet, numbering only about 411. But the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, announced on Friday its aerial survey team had spotted two mother and calf pairs in Cape Cod Bay a day earlier. That brings the number seen in New England waters alone this year to three.
That is significant news because the whale’s population has been decreasing, and no calves were seen at all last year. Surprisingly enough, seven right whale calves have been seen in 2019.
The whales give birth off Georgia and Florida in the winter and travel to feeding grounds off New England in the early spring, including the Gulf of Maine, a body of water that touches Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Canada. With Cape Cod Bay being part of the Gulf of Maine, it is an important feeding ground. The animals often feed close to shore, providing watchers on land “unbeatable views of one of the rarest of marine mammals”, CCS said in a statement.
North Atlantic right whales were hunted virtually to extinction by the early 1890s, and have been listed as endangered since 1970. The mammals tend to stay near the coasts and have a high blubber content, making them a valuable target for whalers.
It’s illegal to get within 1,500ft of the animals without a federal research permit, so boaters are discouraged from attempting to get close to the whales. However, the animals are also threatened by commercial fishing lines, in which they can become dangerously entangled. Collisions with vessels and underwater noise are also among the most serious threats to the right whale population. Measures are in place in both of the right whale critical habitat areas to reduce the chance of vessel collisions.
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has a large head that takes up nearly a quarter of the length of its body. It can grow up to 18 metres in length and can live at least 75 years.