The waters off the Georgia coast are a vital calving ground for the North Atlantic right whale. This calving season, which winds down in April, has been a rare bright spot for the critically endangered whales, with scientists counting more babies than in the last three seasons combined. But experts say the gains may not be enough to save the species. On this episode of Georgia Today, we hear the latest on efforts to protect the right whale.  

RELATED: Outlook Grim For Entangled Right Whale


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. The waters off the Georgia coast are a vital calving ground for the North Atlantic right whale. This calving season, which winds down in April, has been a rare bright spot for the critically endangered whales. Scientists have so far counted more babies this year than the last three seasons combined. Still, a few have already died, and experts say the gains may not be enough to save the species.

Gib Brogan: We've lost 20% of the entire species just in 10 years, and if they keep going in this direction, they could really be facing extinction. What we need to do is find ways to reduce our impacts.

Steve Fennessy: In this episode of Georgia Today, we hear what's being done to protect the right whale, Georgia's official marine mammal. I'm joined by reporter Emily Jones, who oversees GPB's Savannah bureau.

Emily, thank you for joining us. The number of right whales is down to around 375 by the last official count, so few that scientists can actually give each of them individual names. What are we seeing during this most recent calving season and what are the numbers showing us now?

Emily Jones: On the one hand, it's been really exciting to watch because it has been one of the most successful calving seasons, certainly in the last, you know, seven years. But then within that number, they actually estimate that there are fewer than 100 calving females out there. So that''s even fewer whales that are able to have babies and continue perpetuating the species. So, yeah, the drop-off in the population has been pretty steep. And we, at the moment, don't have anything that looks like a plateau — not to mention a turnaround — to see that population starting to tick back up again. They do these surveys in airplanes, so they spot the pairs of mothers and babies swimming together and they spotted 17 of them. However, they estimate that they need actually something in the neighborhood of about 24 — two dozen a year for several years in a row just to even, like, stabilize the population. And then also, there's been several tragedies this season. I said there were 17 calves that were born and were spotted with their mothers — one of them has actually already been hit by a boat and killed.

News tape: Today, a NOAA aircraft found that calf's mother. News4Jax reporter Brie Isom joining us live with new details. Brie, there's video of the mom swimming off our coast.

Brie Isom: Yes. So NOAA aircraft filled with some right whale observers flew up today from Volusia County and found the mom, Infiniti, in Georgia. The right whale calf was hit by a sports fisherman boat. So NOAA Fisheries has regulations that say you cannot be within 1,500 feet of a right whale. And in perspective, that's about five football fields. I’m live in Jacksonville; Brie Isom, Channel 4, the local station.

Emily Jones: And then there were at least two whales this season, also adult whales, that were seen off of the Georgia-Florida coast that were severely entangled and one of those whales actually died. They found its body floating in the water. And then the other whale was very severely entangled and it actually hasn't been seen since.

Steve Fennessy: It's amazing how huge these things are. I think the blue whale might be the biggest whale on the planet. But second to that are right whales, who can weigh like 200,000 pounds or something insane like that.

Emily Jones: Yeah, they're — they're up to 52 feet long, according to NOAA.

Steve Fennessy: Are there any estimates on when the population was at its healthiest, at its peak? How many thousands of — of these animals were swimming in the oceans?

Emily Jones:  So, I was able to find some scientists that estimated the pre-whaling, pre-hunting population — I mean, it's really tough to pin down — at between 9,000 and a little over 21,000. We think of the whaling period as sort of especially the mid- to late 19th century. And then they were really able to sort of industrialize the process, which both accelerated whaling, because they had steam-powered ships and they had these more powerful cannons and harpoons that exploded and all kinds of crazy, more deadly things, and one of the things that process did was enable them to hunt bigger whales, and whales that were outside of the realm of possibility for whalers in the past. But right whales actually have always been hunted because they are close to shore and they are a whale that you can kill from a wooden sailing ship. Throughout the 19th century, they were able to — to hunt these whales in the very classic way described in Moby Dick. So, by the early 1890s, they had really been hunted to the brink of extinction. They estimate that they actually reached a low of around 100 by the turn of the century, the early 20th century. And then the U.S. finally banned whaling in the 1970s and also passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Richard Nixon Foundation: On Jan. 20, 1969, Richard Nixon was inaugurated president. He identified the environment as the defining issue of the new decade.

Richard Nixon: The great question of the '70s is: Shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?

Emily Jones: And at the same time, in 1970 was also when right whales were listed as an endangered species. So they've — they've been under protection since then.

Steve Fennessy: So if we banned whaling in the early 1970s — that's what? 50 years ago — why has the population of right whales not bounced back and, in fact, gotten worse?

Emily Jones: They did bounce as far back as about 500 whales. But the thing is, we're not actively hunting them. We don't go out on ships with harpoons and kill them anymore, but we are killing them. The main common causes of death are being hit by a ship or getting entangled in fishing gear.

Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk for a bit about what makes the right whale unique and especially pressured among whale species.

Emily Jones: There are records from the medieval period of right whales being hunted for food. We refer to them as the right whale because that was one of the names that whalers actually used for them informally because they were the "right" whale. If you were out whaling, they were the right whale to kill because right whales live relatively close to — to the coast and they also have a really high blubber content so they float when they die. So if you're a whaler, that's pretty convenient.

Steve Fennessy: The population needs roughly two dozen new calves every season in order just to stabilize the population. I'm assuming by that you mean that unless they reach that mark, the number, the total number is going to be incrementally going down every year, continuing to go down?

Emily Jones: There used to be about 450 when I first got here in 2014 and now the current estimate is about 375. They revise that estimate every year and it pretty much goes down every year.

Steve Fennessy: Among the researchers and scientists that you talk to, how would you characterize their state of mind when it comes to the future of the right whale?

Emily Jones: When I've spoken to scientists this season, they sound a little more optimistic than maybe in the past. 2017 was really this kind of watershed year for right whales and, unfortunately, a very tragic year.

News tape: It's not a sign marine biologists ever want to see. On June 6, a fisherman spotted a dead North Atlantic right whale about 60 kilometers off the coast of the Magdalena Islands, an upsetting discovery, but no immediate cause for alarm. But now, weeks later, five more whales have been found dead. Sarah Leavitt, CBC News, Montreal.

Emily Jones: They were pretty honestly despondent and, you know, things looked pretty grim.

Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, what advocates say is needed to protect the vulnerable North Atlantic right whale species from extinction. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the dire situation for the North Atlantic right whale. The critically endangered marine mammals' calving grounds are just off the Georgia coast. The whales are especially vulnerable to injury and to death in the busy waters up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Gib Brogan heads up the ocean protection group Oceana's fisheries campaign.

Gib Brogan: These whales have been in a similar situation before and they have shown signs of recovery, coming up to close to 500 in the early 2000s. And this gives us hope that if we take strong and decisive action right now, that we can help these whales come back.

Steve Fennessy: Scientists tell us that the whales need to give birth to around two dozen calves for more than a year in a row to even begin to stabilize the population. I'm joined this week by GPB reporter Emily Jones. So, Emily, federal regulators are looking to possibly tighten up the fishing regulations that would protect the right whale.  So where do those regulations stand? Is there anything that could possibly be altered in the terms of how the fishing industry operates that might encourage the whales to move about more freely?

Emily Jones: There is a new proposed fishing regulation that was published in, I think, December of last year and the comment period for that just closed a few weeks ago. But its goal was to try to put some measures in place to protect right whales. And it also had some — some rules about fishing lines that are easier to break.

News tape: Weak points in rope, line reductions: just some changes proposed for lobster traps by the state of Maine. State fishery regulators are trying to be proactive after federal officials said they'll tighten lobstering rules to protect the 400 or so remaining right whales.

Steve Fennessy: So right now, the federal government doesn't necessarily have the authority to go in and say there's a bunch of right whales around here and tell lobster fishermen or other fishermen that you cannot be fishing in this area right now?

Emily Jones: The regulations that do exist are pretty seasonal. But no, there isn't currently a way to say, like, “We spotted a whale and its calf; nobody fish there today.” And Canada actually did put in place some of the very regulations that — that folks are now calling for the U.S. to do and they have apparently been pretty effective.

Steve Fennessy: What's at stake here? What do we lose if the right whale actually does go extinct?

Emily Jones: Any time you lose any kind of species from the tiniest little zooplankton all the way up through right whales and other whales and big sharks can devastate that ecosystem or it can — it just throws everything out of balance. They're supposed to be out there, out in the ocean. And I mean, if they go extinct, it's because we have killed them in a wide variety of ways.

Steve Fennessy: When we talk about getting caught in fishing lines, are we talking about nets? What are we talking about specifically there?

Emily Jones: So the main problem is long lines that go vertically through the water. And those are mostly associated with like lobster and crab fishing and mostly up north. That's kind of the classic lobstering, like there's a buoy on the top of the water and then a long line that goes vertically all the way down to the lobster pot at the bottom. So if you're underwater, as a right whale, that's just like a minefield for you to go through. And, you know, they encounter one of those lines and as a whale, their kind of instinctive reaction is to twist and try to roll away from it, which can actually twist the line around them more. I think it's also important to say I'm saying "line," because that's kind of the terminology they use. But we're really not talking about fishing line like, you know, in a fishing pole, I mean, these are ropes. These are really sturdy ropes to stand up to sitting there in the water for a long time and then hauling up a pot full of lobsters. And sometimes it's not too serious and they're able to wriggle free or the line just comes off and, you know, maybe they have a scar, but they're able to free themselves. But sometimes they're really, really severe entanglement.

Steve Fennessy: Is there a way for scientists to disentangle them? Is that even a viable option?

Emily Jones: They have been successful in disentangling them. Look at just the Southeast where we are: Georgia, Florida. Since 2005, they have spotted 24 entangled whales, responded to 18 of those cases. And in 11 of those cases, they have managed to partially or completely disentangle the whale.

Mackie Greene: And we have long poles with cutters like you can see here. So we have to get up pretty close. We like to get within 10 feet, if we can, 10, 12 feet. You know, we all discuss the operation, what we're going to try on the next approach.

Emily Jones: If you know what you're doing, you can approach a whale and you can maybe cut the lines or find a way to disentangle it.

Mackie Greene: The whales, they're not aggressive. I've never seen whales turn on you and try to come at you, but they'll try to avoid you the best you can. And the danger is the whale changing course and bumping into the boat and rocking the boat over or slapping the boat with the tail or something like that. Yeah, it is definitely dangerous. And sometimes with a fresh entanglement, it's too dangerous to get around them. They're still thrashing and going, trying to get out of it themselves. For us, it's a little better if there's been a little bit of time passed. So the whale is used to the entanglement and calmed down.

Emily Jones: So it's a really difficult process. It's a really risky and can-even-be-fatal-to-the-humans process. And just in general, what I'm what I'm told by the experts is that, yes, disentanglement can work, but it's not really an efficient way of solving the problem.

Steve Fennessy: So is there any other way around that? Is there a solution?

Emily Jones: There is quite a bit of technology that exists. And I think more is kind of being developed on a pretty regular basis of lineless lobster and crab fishing. It's kind of two basic ideas: Either there's a still a line, but it's like coiled up and attached to the top of the lobster pot. So you just drop the lobster pot down and then either with a timer or with some kind of fancy technology where you trigger it from your boat. You can trigger that to release the buoy and the line. And so the line, the buoy floats up to the top and carries the line with it and you haul up your pot in a very short period of time instead of leaving that line dangling in the water for a really long time. And then the other thing that some of them have is actually a thing that inflates like a sort of an inflatable balloon or bladder. And it's a similar thing, either on a timer or somebody's triggering it from a boat. This thing inflates full of air and floats the lobster or crab pot up to the top so you can haul it and not have any lines in the water. So that technology actually does exist. And I think, you know, there's a lot of scientists and — and people from the fishing industry constantly working on it and trying to figure out what's best and develop new technology and that kind of thing. But part of why the population has really had this steep decline is there's also been a declining birth rate at the same time, and that's a little bit tougher to suss out. But a lot of it has to do, they think, with the fact that they're having a harder time finding food. That has at least something to do with climate change.

News tape: The whales went from producing 411 calves between 1990 and 2014, with an average of 17 a year, to just five being born in 2017. Dr. Charles Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program, told TheNew York Times, "We're looking at the very real possibility of extinction."

Emily Jones: The whales are having a harder time finding food, which is affecting their fertility and they're spacing out their pregnancies longer and those kinds of things which are really driving down the population and then also having a hard time finding food is driving the whales to go look for food in places where they didn't used to be.

News tape: Researchers think they're struggling to reproduce because our changing climate is messing with their usual feeding and pupping grounds.

Steve Fennessy: Migratory patterns of a North Atlantic right whale is basically up and down the East Coast of the U.S., up into Canada, so the water is warming and so the whale has to find colder water in which to feed?

Emily Jones: Normally, a female whale might have a new baby every couple of years. And that span of time has — has really grown a lot longer. And they suspect that some of that might have to do with the fact that they are having maybe a harder time finding food and being healthy enough. You know, swimming down here to Georgia to have their babies is really exhausting. They don't have food down here. So they they swim down and they have a baby and they're really tired and exhausted. It's a really pretty onerous process. You know, if they're having a harder time replenishing and finding food, once they get back up to the northern waters, that may be part of why they're now having calves more like every six to 10 years instead of more like three, which is what's considered kind of normal and healthy

Steve Fennessy: About how long would they live if they weren't, you know, getting caught up in fishing lines or getting hit by ships. What's a normal life span?

Emily Jones: Around 70 years is the normal life span for a right whale. They become sexually mature at about age 10. So a 10-year-old whale might be one you would expect to have their first baby. And then a healthy normal whale in a healthy, normal ocean might have a baby every three years, but that interval has gotten a lot longer, which, of course, is part of this rapidly declining birth rate

Steve Fennessy: Along the 100 miles or so of the Georgia coast. You've lived there for a number of years. What is sort of the — the perception and relationship that locals have or with the right whale that comes by once a year?

Emily Jones: I mean, I'm a little biased because I've been reporting on these whales and so I love them and I'm very excited about the whales. But in general, I mean, people seem to think it's pretty cool that these whales are out there. You know, whenever a baby is spotted and that sort of news comes out, people are, oh, you know, baby whale! It's you know, it's this cute kind of thing. There's actually a local chapter of one of the national conservation groups, Oceana. And they actually in 2017, they started doing this event called Whale Week. So it's really kind of increasingly in recent years turning into something that people are pretty excited about that we do have these whales and these are there calving grounds. I would say things still look pretty grim. And I think it's a really frustrating job to devote your life to tracking and researching and trying desperately to save a species that's on the brink of extinction. And so, you know, nobody's outlook right now is bright, sunny, sunshine, sunshine, and the whales are going to be fine. But I think mostly the people I talk to are really dedicated and really determined. They want to spread the word and they want to get the measures in place and do everything we can to save them.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to GPB reporter Emily Jones, as it turns out, the right whale isn't the only Georgia marine species whose habitat is under threat. Advocates say nesting loggerhead sea turtles are especially vulnerable, thanks to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to conduct dredging near the coastline. Army Corps officials say they are following current environmental regulations. The agency has solicited public comments on the dredging plan and the nonprofit environmental group One Hundred Miles promises to continue organizing to protect the sea turtles who nest along Georgia's coast.

Catherine Ridley: We certainly don't want to lose any turtle in a dredge. It's not an easy death, but killing nesting females is especially devastating to our conservation efforts. And that's what this fight is about. We can't afford to lose them.

Steve Fennessy: For more, go to I'm Steve Fennessy, this is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is Georgia Today's producer. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.