A brand-new male North Atlantic right whale calf was discovered dead yesterday on a beach at Anastasia State Park near St. Augustine, Florida. He was struck by a boat on Friday night; his body shows a series of deep propeller wounds across his back and head. A necropsy is taking place today. The calf was the first born to a 19-year old right whale known as “Infinity.” The pair were first sighted less than a month ago, on January 17. Infinity was spotted on February 16 with injuries along her left side, likely the result from the same strike that killed her calf. The severity of her wounds have not yet been determined.
“Right whales have come to the Southeast since time immemorial to birth and nurse their babies in the safety of warm, shallow waters,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “But the calving grounds have become killing grounds.”
The news comes during what has so far been the most successful calving season in years, with 15 live births since November, including one just announced yesterday.
This death marks the first confirmed right whale vessel strike death in U.S. waters in 2021, but the third in 13 months. Boat strikes also killed two calves from the 2019-2020 season in January and June of last year. One of the mothers has still not been resighted.
“It is unforgivable that the federal government has sat on its hands for years rather than expand common-sense vessel slow-down zones. We hope this terrible news will spur the Biden administration to move quickly to protect these vulnerable babies and their mothers—and the species’ future,” Davenport said.
The North Atlantic right whale has suffered a precipitous population decline of 25% since 2010 alone. Scientists estimate that only around 356 right whales were alive at the end of 2020. Of those, fewer than 70 breeding females survive. Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements are two main threats driving the species towards extinction.
The federal government has not taken a single new step to protect right whales from vessel strikes in U.S. waters since a 2008 rule despite petitions for rulemaking in 2012 and 2020. Defenders and its conservation allies filed a lawsuit on January 13, 2021, to challenge the federal government’s unreasonable delay. An agency report dated June 2020 showed that the 2008 rule must be enforced and expanded to reduce deadly vessel strikes.