This was not a banner calving season for North Atlantic right whales. The endangered whales migrate to Georgia and Florida and have their calves off the coast, but they had fewer than average this past winter.
The average number of calves born in a season is 20, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. This year, the agency counted 14 calves, and one of those died.
Numbers of calves were below average in other recent years, too, but it's too soon to be concerned, according to Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Clay George.
“We'll need a few more calving seasons before we know whether this recent dip in calving numbers is impacting population growth,” he said. “It's important to remember, these are long-lived animals. They can live 60 years or more. They can only have one calf at a time every three or four or five years. There could be any number of things happening in their natural environment that might cause temporary dips in the cycle.”
Right whales were driven almost to extinction by the whaling industry. The most recent numbers suggest there are now about 475 of them.
These days, said George, the main threats to North Atlantic right whales are ships and fishing gear.
The Department of Natural Resources is participating in a project to attach small satellite transmitters to the whales, to learn more about their migration patterns.
"One of the biggest problems we have with managing impacts with this species is, it's a big ocean and there's very few of them in it,” George said. With satellite tags, scientists will be able to learn more about their migration routes, and try to minimize threats from ships and fishing operations on those routes.