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Right whale calf apparently hit by boat - unlikely to survive injuries

Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina
Forever Hooked Charters of South Carolina
The injured North Atlantic right whale calf of Juno is seen with injuries on the head, mouth, and left lip that are consistent with a boat collision, also known as a vessel strike.

Conservationists for critically endangered right whales say they’re outraged and devastated after learning a calf is seriously injured — and unlikely to survive.

So far, experts believe just nine North Atlantic right whales have been born this calving season. Now one, which was was captured in photos and videos off the coast of South Carolina, appears to have propeller wounds on its head, mouth, and left lip.

In a press release, biologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made a preliminary determination that it meets the criteria of a “serious injury.” That means the whale is likely to die as a result.

“This devastating case brings a heightened sense of urgency to address the significant challenges North Atlantic right whales are facing,“ said Amy Knowlton, senior scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

The calf is the 14th North Atlantic right whale — in just 16 years — to get caught in a fatal or near-fatal collision with a boat. The total North Atlantic right whale population now stands around 350. It’s so low that the whales, who are frequent visitors to northeastern waters, are considered one step away from extinction.

“There are so few right whales left that every death brings this species closer to extinction,” said CLF Senior Attorney Erica Fuller.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the calf’s mother, Juno, had also suffered injuries. The pair had been seen just one day prior on Dec. 9 off Amelia Island, Florida. Mother-calf pairs are at heightened risk for boat collisions because they spend nearly all their time at or close to the water's surface, but their jet black coloring makes them difficult to see.

“The real tragedy here is that this was preventable,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Juno is doing her job by having babies but politics are killing them faster than she can reproduce. It’s inexcusable.”

According to experts, wound analyses of the images are under way to estimate the size of the boat that struck the calf.

Whale conservationists, like Gib Brogan at Oceana, say the Biden administration needs to finalize a rule that would require more boats — particularly smaller boats — to slow down in areas where right whales are.

“Today we’re still waiting for the government to do what it knows needs to be done. It’s clear current safeguards are not working,” he said. 

The proposed changes have been contested by ship operators, ferry boats, fishermen and others in the marine industry who say it would be restrictive and costly.

In a statement, a NOAA spokesperson addressed questions about when the rules are expected to be finalized or modified.

"While NOAA Fisheries anticipated taking action on the proposed rule to modify North Atlantic right whale vessel speed regulations in 2023, the rulemaking process remains underway," said Lauren Gaches.

But Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the delay is costing lives.

“The federal government keeps dragging its feet at the expense of these critically endangered whales,” she said. 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
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