The winter calving season for critically endangered right whales has nearly ended with zero newborns spotted in the past four months—a reproductive drought that scientists who study the fragile species haven't seen in three decades. Right whales typically give birth off the southeastern US coast between December and late March, then travel to feeding grounds in the northeastern US. Researchers have recorded between one and 39 births each year since 1989. But survey flights to look for mother-and-calf pairs off the Atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida are scheduled to wrap up Saturday without any confirmed births, reports the AP. "It's a pivotal moment for right whales," says an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s right whale recovery program. "If we don't get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end."
Scientists estimate only about 450 North Atlantic right whales remain, and the species suffered terribly in 2017. A total of 17 right whales washed up dead in the US and Canada last year (at least four were struck by ships and at least two died from entanglement in fishing gear), far outpacing five births. With no rebound in births this past winter, the overall population could shrink further in 2018, though some are holding out hope for calves born this season off the Carolinas or Virginia, where scientists weren't really looking. It's also possible right whales could rally with a baby boom next year. Females typically take three years or longer between pregnancies, so births can fluctuate from year to year. The previous rock-bottom year for births—just one calf spotted in 2000—was followed by 31 newborns in 2001, the second-best calving season on record. (Read more endangered species stories.)