WILMINGTON, NC — A highly endangered North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead last weekend near Morehead City along North Carolina’s central coast.
The death is a major blow to a species already under severe stress from ship strikes, fishing gear entanglements and climate change. Fewer than 350 marine mammals still swim off the Atlantic coast between Canada’s Maritime Provinces and northern Florida, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The young calf was first seen near Beaufort Inlet on Jan. 3 by a member of the public, who reported the sighting to local conservationists. A search by local and foreign researchers, including a team from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute in Florida, soon found the calf, but not her mother.
“The aerial survey team expanded their search in hopes of locating and identifying an adult whale that could be the potential mother,” the NOAA wrote in an online post. “However, no other whales have been found in the area.”
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The calf was found dead under a pier in Morehead City Harbor on Saturday, according to NOAA, and response teams have recovered the carcass and performed an autopsy. The calf, estimated to be no more than a few weeks old, appeared to be underweight and in relatively poor health.
Newborn calves cannot survive for long without their mothers, according to the NOAA. “There are very few intervention options for the stranded network given the size of the animals and their specialized needs.”
The whereabouts and health of the calf’s mother are unknown.
“This calf will be added as the 93rd whale to the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event that the species has experienced since 2017,” the NOAA said.
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North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered mammals in the world. Long hunted for their oil and meat, the whales got the name because they swam close to shore and floated long after they were killed, thus being the “right” whale for the 19th century whalers to pursue. By the early 1900s, the estimated population had plummeted to barely a hundred animals.
Despite aggressive action against whaling, environmentalists have long held up the whale as a proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for the marine environment, demonstrating the stress many marine mammals face as a result of human actions. That includes increased shipping traffic – both in number and size of vessels – in the busy shipping lanes along the US East Coast and the dangers of entanglement from fixed gear, including New England’s economically important lobster fishery.
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Climate change is a relatively new asset to the challenges facing the whale, which can grow up to 16 meters long and weigh 70 tons. Warming oceans are moving the whale’s preferred food source, zooplankton, further north, with the whales following waters where humans, vessels and whales may find it more difficult to coexist.
Plans, spearheaded by the Biden administration, to add offshore wind farms along many coastal waters along the East Coast — the same areas where whales migrate between their summer feeding grounds off New England and the Canadian Maritimes and winter breeding grounds in the southeastern U.S. — have also concerned biologists. .
The whale is also a slow breeder, with three years being the normal time between births. That is another challenge when it comes to stabilizing and rebuilding the population. NOAA estimated that 20 whales will be born in 2021 and 15 calves in 2022.
With the latest estimates showing animal numbers dropping to less than 340 in recent years, and adult females around 70, environmentalists and regulators have ramped up conservation efforts.
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Last year, NOAA proposed new measures to prevent whale-to-whale collisions. Seasonal speed limits would be extended to most of the East Coast. The speed limit of 10 knots or less within generally close to shore would also be extended to most vessels under 35 feet in length. Previously, they only applied to vessels over 20 meters and at the approaches and estuaries of major ports, including Norfolk, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina.
But the effort was met with strong resistance from charter and recreational fishermen, who feared the move would virtually shut down their boating industry. They said the move would also devastate an important part of coastal economies.
According to an American Sportfishing Association report released in May, recreational fishing in North Carolina supports 455,000 jobs and generates an economic impact of $152 for every pound of fish landed.
Efforts to force changes in the lobster fishery also met with political headwinds, with Congressional Democrats giving fishermen six years to make changes to their fishing practices to protect the whales. The move frustrated many environmentalists, who said the marine mammals don’t have that long before their potential extinction becomes a foregone conclusion.
“We know that ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are an ever-present threat to North Atlantic right whales, and that current conservation measures are inadequate,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fisheries campaign manager, in a statement on the death of the young whale calf. . , noting that last month the environmental group filed an emergency petition seeking increased and immediate federal protection for the whales.
Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was created with funding from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network retains full editorial control over the work.