In what amounts to the first good news in some time for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whales, biologists say they have spotted 14 newly born calves in waters off Florida and Georgia during the last two months.
Considering that there are only about 300 right whales left, and that only one calf was born last year, whale researchers are excited about the new calves.
Robert Kenney, a right whale researcher at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, said there might be even more calves this year. "The calving season isn't over until the end of February and into March," he said.
There are only about 70 reproductively active female right whales left, and many of them give birth in shallow waters off northern Florida and southern Georgia. Each spring the whales migrate north, keeping close to the coastline as they stop in prime feeding grounds off Cape Cod. Eventually they reach the Bay of Fundy, where many remain through the summer and into fall.
The two biggest threats to the whales, particularly calves, are being run over by ships or entangled in fishing gear. New rules to lessen the threats of ship strikes are still being negotiated with the shipping industry. But new restrictions for local fishermen -- primarily breakaway links on lobster gear and weak links and limits on anchors used for gillnet gear -- are set to go into effect Feb. 27.
The new rules set by the National Marine Fisheries Services will change fishing practices before most of the whales are expected to pass through nearby coastal waters on their migration.
The number of calves is good compared to last year, but it's only about average for the whales over time, according to Kenney. The highest calving period in recent years was 1996, when 22 calves were spotted. Births declined each year since then. Scientists are still debating about the reasons.
Kenney thinks the food supply is the prime determinant. "What this means to me is they've been finding something to eat again," he said.
Other explanations under consideration are disease, the presence of biotoxins or other contaminants in the water, or a genetic problem caused by inbreeding in a too-small population of animals.