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Right whale moms and calves face victories and losses

Legato and her calf are spotted in Cape Cod Bay.
Eg No 1802, Legato, and 2024 Calf of 1802, photographed north of Marshfield, MA, April 1, 2024 by the Center for Coastal Studies Aerial Survey Team. NOAA Permit 25740-02.
Legato and her calf are spotted in Cape Cod Bay.

The first North Atlantic right whale calf of the season safely reached Cape Cod Bay with its mother this week.

The news came the same day another new mother of the species was reported dead off Virginia, killed by “catastrophic injuries” from a boat collision, also known as a vessel strike. Her calf, born in December, has disappeared and is unlikely to survive.

Experts say it’s frustrating to celebrate good news about two of the approximately 360 remaining North Atlantic right whales, only to be faced with the reality that most mother-calf pairs are suffering.

“Legato” and calf seen off Marshfield 

On the positive side of the ledger, a 36-year-old right whale mom that researchers call “Legato” was spotted with her calf in Cape Cod Bay this week.

“We were just finishing a survey track line when we saw a right whale feeding less than a mile from the beach off North Marshfield. We flew over to document the animal and all cheered in excitement when a little calf popped up by its side,” Ryan Schosberg, aerial observer and right whale researcher from the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, said in a statement.

His CCS colleague, Stormy Mayo, said Legato and her fifth calf would have faced a perilous journey north from calving grounds off Florida and Georgia.

Sometimes, I imagine in the middle of the night what it must be like in a big storm, with a little calf. And the mother, trying to stay close in contact,” Mayo said. “But, they've made it here and there in calm waters, and in a good feeding area, because Legato probably hasn't eaten for many months.”

He added, it’s always a relief to see these animals safely reach the bay, where there are strict fishing protections and tons of the tiny crustaceans that are the whales’ favored food.

“The bay has exceptional food resources for these right whales during this season of the year," Mayo said. "The richness starts sometime in January and reaches a peak in April, and on into early May before it's gone.”

This season, researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies have already observed 123 individual right whales in the bay — about a third of the total population.

Meanwhile, tragedy for Catalog #1950 and calf

So far, researchers have identified 17 calves this season, but three are missing, including one whose mother was found dead 50 miles off the coast of Virginia.

Experts conducted a necropsy on the carcass of the whale known as Catalog #1950 on April 2, and preliminary findings indicated “catastrophic injuries with a complete dislocation of the whale’s spine and fractures to all vertebrae in the lower back,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Officials said a vessel strike would have been responsible for damage at that scale, but did not identify any particular boat.

Catalog #1950, who was at least 35 years old, had given birth to her sixth known calf some time around January 2024.

Aerial survey teams have been unable to locate the calf, which is not expected to survive without its mother.

“The death of this matriarch is tragic and seals the fate of her dependent three-month-old calf,” said Sarah Sharp, an animal rescue veterinarian for IFAW. “To lose not just one but two whales in a single instance is a major blow to this already struggling population.”

Mayo agreed, saying the calf at that age alone is susceptible to many dangers, but it's not likely to live if it can't nurse.

“This calf was nursing and should have nursed for another four, five, six months,” Mayo said. “It’s a baby without food.”

Catalog #1950 is the third right whale to die by vessel strike in 2024. A fourth died of entanglement wounds and washed up on Martha’s Vineyard.

The calf is the third newborn North Atlantic right whale to have disappeared this season.

Whale advocates urge boat protections  

To reduce the risk of vessel strikes, NOAA has proposed modifications to the existing vessel speed rule.

The proposed changes would expand seasonal speed zones in time and space, and extend restrictions to include most vessels measuring 35 to 65 feet in length, among other provisions.

Mothers and calves are at additional risk of vessel strikes because they spend more time at the water’s surface than other right whales.

The proposed changes were published more than 18 months ago, and the final rule is now under interagency regulatory review. It has been delayed by the Biden administration.

“We need to immediately implement speed restrictions in larger areas that cover important whale habitats if North Atlantic right whales are to have a chance at survival,” said Dr. Jessica Redfern, associate vice president of ocean conservation science at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center.

The proposed protections have been met with major pushback from ferry operators, those in the shipping industry, and others who rely on fast-moving boats for a living.

But Gib Brogan, senior ocean campaign manager for the advocacy group Oceana, said the delays have led to catastrophic results.

“Both the mom and calf represented the future of this species,” Brogan said. “Both tragedies were preventable, both are a huge loss to a species on the brink of extinction, and both deaths are on the hands of U.S. government leaders delaying needed protections.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.

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