Trained spotters have been unable to find any mother-and-calf pairs of right whales off the coasts of Georgia and Florida this calving season, causing researchers to worry even more about the critically endangered species.
"It's a pivotal moment for right whales," Barb Zoodsma, head of the right whale recovery program in the U.S. Southeast for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told The Associated Press. "If we don't get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end." The spotters, who look for whales from the air, will stop surveying for the winter on Saturday; Zoodsma said if there are no last-minute sightings, as expected, this will be the first time zero births were recorded since survey flights started in 1989.
An estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales remain in the wild. Over the last three decades, an average of 17 right whales were born every year, but 2017 was a particularly bad year — only five births were recorded, while 17 whales washed up dead on the shores of the U.S. and Canada. "It is truly alarming," scientist Philip Hamilton of the New England Aquarium told AP. "Following a year of such high mortality, it's clear the population can't sustain that trajectory."
There's hope that there were some births off of the Carolinas and Virginia, where scientists weren't doing much spotting, and also that the whales are just experiencing a lull in births because females usually don't become pregnant until more than three years after their last birth. To protect the right whales, scientists recommend speed restrictions on ships in areas where whales are often found, and commercial fishermen are trying nets that break easily so whales don't get tangled. You can read more on the right whale and efforts to save the rare species at The Associated Press.