It has not been a good year so far for North Atlantic right whales. The endangered animals have their calves off the coast of Georgia, and officials have seen only three calves so far.
In good years, back in the 2000s, wildlife biologist Clay George says there were 22 to 24 calves in a season, but there's been a downward trend over the past five years.
Now, George says, he's reminded of the late 90s, when there were very few calves, and the adult whales didn't look healthy.
“Animals were visibly skinnier and appeared to be in poor health with skin lesions and things of that nature,” says George, who’s with the Georgia Department of Natural Resource. “We've been seeing some animals that look like that.”
He says the whales may not be getting enough food. They eat tiny crustaceans, called copepods.
The worst year was 1999, when there was just one calf. If the number stays at three, George says this will be the second-worst year since officials began tracking the whales in the early 1980s.
Calving season for the whales typically lasts from December through March. George says officials have not seen any breeding-age females other than the three with calves.
“In most years, over half the females would already be here,” he says. “So it's possible that some more will show up, but each week that goes by it's looking less and less likely.”
There are about 450 North Atlantic right whales, and about 100 of them are breeding females, George says.
The whaling industry almost drove the North Atlantic right whale to extinction. Now, George says, whales can be killed when they're hit by ships or get tangled in fishing gear.