North Atlantic right whales gave birth over the winter in greater numbers than scientists have seen since 2015, an encouraging sign for researchers who became alarmed three years ago when the critically endangered species produced no known offspring at all. Survey teams spotted 17 newborn right whale calves swimming with their mothers offshore between Florida and North Carolina from December through March, per the AP. One of those calves soon died after being hit a boat, a reminder of the high death rate for right whales that experts fear is outpacing births. The overall calf count matches the 17 births recorded in 2015 and equals the combined total for the previous three years. That includes the dismal 2018 calving season, when scientists saw zero right whale births for the first time in three decades. Still, researchers say greater numbers are needed in the coming years for North Atlantic right whales to rebound from an estimated population that's dwindled to about 360.
"What we are seeing is what we hope will be the beginning of an upward climb in calving," says a Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. "They need to be producing about two dozen calves per year for the population to stabilize and continue to grow." Right whales migrate each winter to warmer Atlantic waters off the southeastern US to give birth. Scientists suspect the recent calving slump may have been caused by a shortage of zooplankton to feed right whales in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia. They say this season's uptick in births could be from whales being healthier after shifting to waters with more abundant food sources. The leading causes of death for the whales are entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats and ships. The federal government is expected to finalize new rules soon aimed at decreasing the number of right whales tangled up in fishing gear used to catch lobster and crabs in the Northeast.
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