WILMINGTON, Del. (The News Journal) -- One of the East Coast’s largest visitors could be in big trouble.
The North Atlantic right whale was recognized as an endangered species even before the inception of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, but this year marks the first time in recent history that scientists have been unable to find even one newborn calf swimming off the East Coast.
“When you put that in the context of everything else that is going on with right whales, it paints a very concerning picture,” said Barbara Zoodsma, a right whale biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA scientists estimate there are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales, only 100 of which are reproducing females, making it the rarest large whale species and among the rarest of all marine mammals in the world. They have been known to live for at least 80 years in the wild and can reach more than 50 feet in length, surviving on zooplankton found in nutrient-rich waters like the Delaware Bay.
Coupling a lack of births with the 18 dead North Atlantic right whales found floating or washed ashore along the East Coast over the last two years, some say the species could now be teetering on extinction.
“It may not sound like that’s a high number, but when you compare it to the overall number of their population, that’s a significant chunk,” said Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute in Lewes.
Zoodsma said healthy whales usually give birth to a calf once every three years. But lately, she said, right whales have only been giving birth once every eight years.
“These days, right whale females, most are dead by the time they’re 50,” she said. “A lot of them are dying in their 30s. They’re living shorter lives and they’re having fewer calves.”
The most recent dead right whale was found in Virginia in January, while the other 17 were found in Massachusetts and off the Canadian coast in 2017. Last year’s deaths mark a 447 percent increase over the annual average.
Thurman said right whales are spotted most years in the Delaware Bay or near the Indian River Inlet. There have been no confirmed sightings near Delaware since July 2016, she said.
“There would be no turning back from the extinction of such an incredible creature,” Thurman said. “It would impact so many others. There’s a huge ripple effect. They are not isolated.”
What is happening in the deep blue?
Part of the problem North Atlantic right whales face relates to increased interaction with human activities – for example, the 80-year-old female noted as one of the oldest documented right whales died after being hit by a ship, Zoodsma said. Another problem is the warming of the oceans linked to climate change, which has shifted when and where the whales can find the food.
“For us, we go to the grocery store and know where the pickles and loaves of bread are,” Zoodsma said. “Then the store moves things around and it takes longer to find them. Then throw in there that there’s a supply problem. So now the store we always go to is out of pickles and we have to go to a different store. That’s what right whales are being faced with right now.”
But navigating the Atlantic Coast for pockets of nearly microscopic food is a far more tedious task than finding a new grocery store, especially without the help of handheld GPS. Difficulty finding pickles is usually more of an inconvenience than a life-or-death scenario.
“I’m going to stay out of that [climate change] debate, but it’s undeniable that things are changing,” Zoodsma said. “It’s undeniable that copepods (a type of zooplankton) that used to aggregate in huge swarms in the Bay of Fundy for right whales to feed on are no longer there. And that’s having an incredible effect.”
In 2017, North Atlantic right whales became the second large whale species being studied for what NOAA calls “an unusual mortality event.” Those events are declared when higher-than-normal numbers of marine mammals die for unknown reasons, potentially signaling a problem with ocean health.
Over the last two years, NOAA has declared unusual mortality events for three species – the endangered North Atlantic right whale, the humpback whale and the minke whale. All three whales are known to frequent the ocean and bay waters along Delaware’s coast as they forage for food.
In a press conference earlier this year, NOAA officials said this is the first time the agency has seen three unusual mortality events of large whale species occur at the same time and in the same place.
Since 2016, 116 whales have died or become stranded along the East Coast, far exceeding annual averages. The last unusual mortality event in the Delmarva area was the 2013-2015 bottlenose dolphin die-off, which ultimately was linked to a pneumonia-like illness called cetacean morbillivirus.
In Delaware, five dead humpback whales washed ashore or were found floating off the coast between 2016 and 2017, adding to the total of 68 dead and stranded humpbacks found along the East Coast. From South Carolina to Maine, 30 dead and stranded minke whales have been found since last year.
Some of the recent whale deaths can be linked to disease, entanglements in fishing gear and blunt force trauma, but researchers are still investigating whether there are common denominators to link the casualties.
Between survival and extinction
Thurman and Zoodsma said the survival of right whales depends on regulatory action regarding fishing gear and ship speeds, but also relies on consumer choices that could limit the need for those large ships and reduce pollution that makes its way into the ocean.
“It’s really about protecting the health of the ocean,” Thurman said. “Looking at our behavior and finding the answers to what we can do in our own individual lives, how we can make some minor adjustments to everyday consumer choices – packaging, avoiding things that cause a lot of pollution in their production, things that have to be shipped long distances.”
While the deaths and lack of births of North Atlantic right whales, as well as the high rate of deaths and strandings of the other two species, concern researchers and environmentalists, Zoodsma said there is hope for the North Atlantic right whale.
They were once so heavily hunted that the species faced possible extinction as recently as the early 1900s. Thurman said legend has it that the species got its name from native hunters who discovered the animal would float after being harpooned, making their job easier and making it “the right whale” to hunt.
“They were hunted so completely, so thoroughly, it was the most thorough assault on any animal species in the world,” Zoodsma said. “There were so few left, whalers no longer targeted them.”
In the 1930s, the species was first protected by the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, according to NOAA. Eventually, protections expanded under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1970, the precursor to the Endangered Species Act. Federal law now prohibits approaching a right whale closer than 500 yards, and also offers protection for the animal’s known critical habitats.
By the 1980s, the species began returning to its historical calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. Within the last 15 years, people have seen more than 200 right whales congregating off the coast of the southeastern United States during the December-March calving season, Zoodsma said.
“This species can come back,” Zoodsma said. “It has shown persistence and resilience to overcome a major obstacle. The question for us is do we as a people have the willpower to afford them the conditions to make that comeback again?”
To learn more about North Atlantic right whales and the three unusual mortality events, go to www.nmfs.noaa.gov.
Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, email@example.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.