(Fredericton) Scientists studying the critically endangered right whale in the North Atlantic are optimistic about the current breeding season. Nine calves were sighted in the first few weeks but let’s not get carried away too quickly, they qualify.
Posted 3:24pm Updated 6:56pm
Hina Alam The Canadian Press
Moira Brown, senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute, recalled that fewer than 100 of the 340 surviving animals in the waters along Canada’s east coast are mothers and called the new baby whales a sign of hope for the future.
“Every birth is important; each time it’s another hope for the future, she stresses. The last 10 or 12 years have been difficult for whales. »
The calving season for North Atlantic right whales begins in mid-November and ends in mid-April.
The interval between one birth and the next for the same mother is usually three to five years, but more recently scientists have found that window is expanding to seven to 10 years, Ms Brown says.
Boris Worm, a professor of marine conservation biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, points out that the number of births has fluctuated in recent years.
There were five births in 2017, none in 2018, seven in 2019, 10 in 2020, 20 in 2021 and 15 in the last year, he said. Despite everything, we are still a long way from the average of 24 per year in the early 2000s.
“We’re not at the end of the season, we’re about halfway through and we’ve already got nine. We hope to see others and maybe even break the 20 mark,” he specifies.
“That would be really good news because we haven’t reached that plateau often in the last ten years. »
Another cause for concern in recent seasons, Ms Brown said, has been the lack of mothers giving birth for the first time, which supports research showing a downward trend in the number of fertile females.
North Atlantic right whales face several challenges that can put them at risk, including collisions with ships, entanglements and food shortages due to warming waters.
“Whale fertility evolves in direct relation to changes in the abundance of its diet. And it has to be said that their food sources have collapsed since 2000,” says Worm.
But births this season suggest mothers have managed to find enough food to sustain a pregnancy, he said.
Right whales feed on zooplankton, which is at the bottom of the food chain. It’s made up of tiny crustaceans, which in turn eat phytoplankton, the algae that green the ocean. However, for whales to have a nutritious diet, they need high concentrations of zooplankton, which may not always be available.
The fact that there have been nine babies so far this season shows there is enough food available at the moment, which Mr Worm says is a good sign.
Around 2010, scientists noticed a shift in right whale habitat, moving from the Gulf of Maine, which includes the Bay of Fundy and southern Nova Scotia, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“I have a lot of credit for right whales; they found food elsewhere, which is good,” Brown says.
Worm, meanwhile, speculated that the “very low” number of births occurred between 2010 and 2018, when whales were migrating between habitats.
“They were just looking for a new grocery store, if you will,” he said before laughing.
Now that births appear to be on the rise, Worm is more concerned about the dangerous environment the whales must navigate.
Between 2017 and 2022, ship collisions and gear entanglements were the leading causes of fatalities and serious injuries in right whales. Those risks are even greater for young whales, Worm said.
“Babies are very naive. They haven’t learned yet that it’s a dangerous place for them. »