Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
For rare North Atlantic right whales, average can be a good thing.
Biologists monitoring the imperiled whales that usually give birth off the coast of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina documented 20 cow/calf pairs this winter – 19 in the Southeast and one in Cape Cod Bay.
While the annual average since 2000 is 21, this year’s total was a far cry from the seven calves in 2012.
Clay George, who heads right whale research for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the population is increasing at an estimated 2 percent per year. Although calf production can vary widely year to year, a string of poor calving seasons could reverse the upward trend. There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left and fewer than 100 breeding females.
“It was another average season, which is just what we needed after such a poor showing last season,” said George, a wildlife biologist with the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Right whales swim from Canada and New England each year to bear their young in the Southeast’s warmer waters. DNR’s Nongame Conservation and Law Enforcement sections, along with the Coastal Resources Division, help staff from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and other agencies monitor whales, respond to injured, entangled or dead whales, collect genetic samples for research and protect right whale habitat.
Researchers from Sea to Shore Alliance, NOAA and Florida Fish and Wildlife conduct aerial surveys along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coast during the cooler months. Survey teams send sighting information to the shipping industry, military vessels, and biologists conducting research from boats. The aim is to monitor the right whale population and reduce the risk of vessel collisions, a common cause of right whale mortality. The season’s last flight off South Carolina was April 15.
So far, six of the mom/calf pairs seen this winter in the Southeast have been documented in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, according to researchers with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Cape Cod Bay is a key feeding habitat for right whales.
In other news from this season:
Right whales can weigh up to 70 tons and reach 50 feet in length. Yet they often swim and rest just below the surface, making them difficult to spot by oncoming watercraft.
Large vessels face speed limits in right whale areas along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Speed restrictions appear to be reducing the right whale vessel strikes, but more time is needed to know for sure. George said there is also a growing emphasis on educating recreational boaters to slow down during the right whale season – for their safety and for the whales.
DNR’s right whale work is funded largely by NOAA Fisheries. But monitoring these and other rare creatures is also an example of how buying a wildlife license plate or donating directly to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund supports wildlife conservation.
Those contributions benefit the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds to conserve native Georgia wildlife not hunted or fished for, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support for details, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).