The female North Atlantic right whale named Punctuation (center) was last seen off the Georgia coast last February, when this photo was taken. She was killed in June in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence when she collided with a ship. CONTRIBUTED BY GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES
Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Right whales face more setbacks in struggle to survive

Charles Seabrook’s “Wild Georgia” column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rare and highly endangered North Atlantic right whales have returned to their winter calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and North Florida, and the season’s first whale calf has been spotted off Sapelo Island.

That’s a bit of good news for state and federal biologists, who fervently hope for several more baby whales this season. More babies would reverse a trend of fewer and fewer calves over the past several years.

A bevy of young, though, would lift only part of the gloom around the right whale’s plight to escape extinction.

Only a little more than 400 North Atlantic right whales remain, and at the current rate they’re dying, their species may be “functionally extinct” by the end of this century if the trend is not reversed, said biologist Clay George with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The natural life span of the baleen North Atlantic right whale (Georgia’s official marine mammal) is about 70 years. They may grow to 50 feet long and weigh more than 70 tons.

The majority of the whale deaths are due to collisions with boats or entanglement in fishing gear. (Each year, the bus-sized animals migrate more than 1,000 miles along the Atlantic seaboard from summer feeding grounds off Canada and New England to winter calving grounds off the Georgia and North Florida coasts.)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that more than 100 right whales were killed or seriously injured from 2010 to 2016. During that time, 110 calves were born. In the past three years, the situation has worsened: Only 12 calves were born compared to 30 whales found dead.

The sad story of an adult female whale named Punctuation reveals the struggle that her species faces. She died last June in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence after colliding with a ship. Since 1986, she had raised eight calves that were born off Georgia. However, five of them also have died or disappeared.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be in first quarter Thursday night. Only two planets are visible now: Venus is low in the west just after dark and sets about two hours later; it will appear near the moon early Saturday evening. Mars is low in the east about two hours before dawn.

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