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Tuesday, 27 June, 2000, 00:10 GMT 01:10 UK
Right whales face extinction
mother and calf in water from above
A mother right whale and her calf: A single calf was seen this year
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

There are new fears for the future of one whale species, the northern right whale of the western Atlantic.

The species is already the most endangered great whale in the world, with a total population estimated at between just 300 and 600 animals.

The World Wide Fund for Nature says only one calf has been sighted during the 2000 calving season.

WWF believes the species could disappear from the Atlantic if the US and Canada do not do more to protect it.

The northern right whales' main feeding grounds are off Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts. Breeding grounds were discovered recently off Georgia and Florida.

Fragmentary populations

Scientists think there could be a tiny number of animals in the eastern Atlantic, and there are a few in the north Pacific.

whale leaping from sea
Right whales are often playful
The southern right whale, found south of the equator, is a separate species, and is recovering from the destruction of the commercial whaling era. Its numbers have been increasing by about 7% annually in recent years.

But its northern cousin shows no signs of recovery, despite the protection from hunting that all right whales have enjoyed since 1937. It was once abundant from Spitzbergen to the Azores.

WWF says its numbers are still falling, with the last three years the worst calving period on record. Females give birth every three to four years, but WWF says only 38% of the female northern rights are reproductively active.

Six new calves were recorded in 1998, three in 1999, and just one so far this year.

Some experts believe that pollution may be a factor, and others say the number of whales is now so low that the species cannot hope to survive.

Colliding with ships

Whales caught in fishing nets can drown, and WWF wants the US and Canada to introduce modifications to fishing gear, and to impose seasonal closures of the fisheries involved, in order to reduce what it says is an unacceptably high death rate.

But WWF says that 90% of all whales dying unnatural deaths are killed in collisions with ships. It wants to see the establishment of ship-free zones and a system of protected areas to cover all the main calving and feeding grounds.

whale dives as ship passes
Whales and ships do not mix
Since 1998 commercial shipping entering northern right whale areas has been required to radio the US Coastguard, which gives vessels the latest information on whale sightings.

Stuart Chapman of WWF told BBC News Online: "This species needs as much help as it can get.

"During storms, and at other times, whales are invisible both to the Coastguard and to shipping.

"Should vessels be in this area at all? Not if we're serious about giving this animal a future."

Action call

Right whales earned their name from the early whalers, who regarded them as the "right" whales to catch. They are slow swimmers, often inquisitive and therefore easy to approach.

They live close to shore and float when they are dead. Crucially, for the whalers, they provided large amounts of valuable oil, meat and whalebone.

The International Whaling Commission holds its annual meeting in Adelaide in South Australia next month, and WWF is urging the IWC members to do more to protect the northern right whales.

Photographs courtesy of the New England Aquarium.

See also:

11 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
12 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
03 Sep 99 | Science/Nature
25 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
22 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
12 Dec 98 | Science/Nature
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