Right whales are listed as an endangered species. Researchers estimate that there are only about 500 existing North American right whales, and the future of these marine animals looks grim.

Scientists revealed that right whales gave birth to the fewest calves last winter in the past 17 years, raising concerns over the declining population of the already endangered species.

Only Three Newborn Whales Sighted

Each winter, right whales migrate to the warmer Atlantic waters off Florida and Georgia to give birth. The trained spotters who observe mother-and-calf pairs during aerial surveys said that there were very few sightings this year. They spotted only three newborn whales swimming alongside their mothers.

The number is the lowest reported since 2000, when spotters only sighted one calf. The number is likewise far lower compared with the yearly average of 17.

One bad year does not necessarily mean that the reproduction of right whales is in trouble since birth numbers may vary year-to-year, but researchers have observed below-average births since the 2012 calving season.

The impact of this year's birth turnout can also affect the species' capacity to reproduce a decade from now, when the newborns would be sexually mature to reproduce and have calves of their own.

No First-Time Mothers

This year likewise marks the first time since 2001 that researchers did not find first-time mothers among the whales that gave birth. Mother whales are identified using distinct markings on their heads. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have developed a facial recognition software for the whales in a bid to save their species.

The three whales that were sighted swimming with their calves were not first-time mothers, but they also neither had babies in seven to eight years, which is far longer than the typical interval between births. Right whales normally give birth once in three years or so.

Right Whale Population May Still Rebound

Wildlife biologist Clay George from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who is involved in right whale surveys, said it may be too early to be gloomy about the flat or declining population of the whales, citing how the population of the species turned around in the 2000s.

Right whale births bottomed out in 2000, but their population managed to rebound with a baby boom of 31 newborns after that year.

Some signs indicate that births may improve next year as researchers have observed more whales feeding in the Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia last summer than what they had seen in several years. The right whales that return to Cape Cod also look less thin and more robust than in the past spring seasons.

Researchers also said that there may still be a possible addition to the number of calves this year, as they were trying on Wednesday, April 12, to confirm a report of a fourth mother-newborn pair that was sighted in Cape Cod.

"I'm somewhat hopeful next year will be better," said whale researcher Philip Hamilton, from the New England Aquarium in Boston.

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