Thursday, April 23, 2009

Endangered Right Whales May Be Rebounding On Atlantic Coast

Some good news about North Atlantic right whales. These whales do not receive as much attentions as humpbacks and killer whales in the press, and good news about the environment also doesn't get the attention that dying whales do.

Only about 400 of these marine mammals are thought to exist, making right whales one of the most endangered large whale species in the world.

Their name comes from the fact that they were considered the "right whale" to kill during the whaling era because of the thick layers of valuable blubber beneath its skin, and because the whales are so chunky that they float quickly to the surface after they're harpooned.

The calving season for these school-bus-sized whales formally ended March 31, and the whales are now headed north along the East Coast of the United States.

These right whales birthed a record number calves this year off the coast of the southeast United States, which gives scientists hope that this rare and overlooked species can recover. There were recorded 39 new calves, each weighing in at about 3,000 pounds, born off the Atlantic coast of Florida and Georgia.

Right whales have to make it to age 5 to 7 before they too can give birth and continue the species' gradual rebound. Young whales face threats from humans before they reach that age. These whales migrate through a channel of ocean that's heavily trafficked by cargo and fishing ships and ships are known to strike right whales, partly because the black creatures are difficult to spot on the water.

Five whales were also found entangled in fishing gear this year in the southeast Atlantic. These thick ropes can rub through a whale's skin and hit bone, and restrict the ability of the whales to feed. There have been some new restrictions on the use of these ropes (sinking ropes are safer for whales) in Maine.

Kate Longley, who works on a team with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to monitor right whales in Cape Cod Bay, was cautiously optimistic: "There hasn't been much indication that the species is rebounding significantly. It's definitely good news [the 39 births], and it's the most that we've seen, but it's only one year. So I think it would be premature to make any sort of prediction or any sort of statement about the state of the species based on one year of high calving."

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