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Right whales on the brink of extinction despite protection


Despite more than 80 years of protection, the endangered North Atlantic right whale – often spotted off Vero Beach and the Space Coast in winter – is on the brink of extinction.  And local whale conservationists are calling for help from beachside residents to monitor the tanking population.

"Only 411 animals are left.  In less than 22 years, they could be extinct," warned Julie Albert, coordinator of the Marine Resources Council's North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation Program.

For the past 20 years, Albert has trained and managed a loose cadre of about 150 volunteers – based mostly on the beach but also at sea and in the air – who keep a lookout for the huge marine mammals as they migrate south from New England and Canada to their calving area between North Carolina and Sebastian Inlet from November through April.

Sightings are reported to a 24-hour hotline and the information is entered into a national database used to estimate the size of the population and protect it from manmade threats.

Right now, things are looking grim.

So far this year, no calves have been born and three whales died. In 2017, 17 whales died – the highest number on record – and five calves were born. 

Albert said the two main causes of mortality are entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes. The animals, which can grow to 55 feet long and live up to 70 years, take about 10 years to reach sexual maturity and females have a gestation period of about a year.

Most calves are born off Florida and Georgia. Last year, Albert trained some 37 members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary to spot and identify whales during their regular air and sea patrols.  But surveillance from land is very important because the animals often swim very close to the beach where they can easily be seen from condo decks.                   "When citizens in Vero call and send us pictures, they need to understand this helps us," Albert said. "The more eyes on the water, the better."

Albert conducts regular training classes for anyone who's interested.

Right whales are distinctive for their black skin, lack of a dorsal fin, high jaw line, black tail, black paddle-shaped pectoral flippers, two blowholes which create a V-shaped spray, and white, raised rough patches of skin on their heads called callosities that are unique to each animal.