It is seen from a research vessel lookout – a solitary V-shaped “blow” and then something dark on the water’s surface. Often, the return of right whales to Georgia is as subtle as that. But this winter, thanks to a new ruling more of these imperiled whales will have a better chance at making the annual journey safely.
In October, the National Marine Fisheries Service established a rule that will implement speed restrictions for vessels 65 feet or longer. The restrictions call for a speed of no more than 10 knots during certain times of the year in areas designated as critical right whale habitat along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. The rule goes into effect Dec. 9, 2008. Shipping interests can find additional information at http://www.nero.noaa.gov/shipstrike/.
Biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are spreading the word about the rule while also gearing up for the first few sightings of these rare aquatic giants.
It is important to note that not only commercial ships can cause mortal injuries to right whales. Recreational fishing boats and other large personal recreational boats can also have a devastating impact on the whales, which are found as close as three miles offshore depending on water depth. Although larger recreational boats are not required to adhere to the commercial speed limit, NOAA recommends they heed the rule as well.
North Atlantic right whales spend the summer in the cooler waters off New England and Canada. Each fall, a portion of the population returns to Georgia and Florida for the winter. Annual research done by the DNR Wildlife Resources Division and NOAA from December through March is helping wildlife biologists determine the status of these endangered animals.
Approximately 150 right whales were seen off the Georgia coast during the 2008 season. The total included 19 sets of mother and calf pairs, as well as juveniles and single animals. Whales are counted using aerial surveys and on-the-water monitoring.
2008 marked the first year since 2005 that no adult mortalities were reported. There were two reported cases of calf mortalities last year, both from unknown causes.
Researchers identify right whales by the unique pattern of callosities, or rough patches of skin, found on the whales’ heads and around their mouths. These patches are usually covered with whale lice, crustaceans that make the patches appear white. Photographs are used to tell which whale is being observed.
Right whales are baleen whales with a bow-shaped lower jaw and a head that is up to one-quarter of the body length. Calves weigh approximately 1 ton at birth and adults can reach 60 tons and almost 50 feet in length. They have no dorsal fin and breathe through two blowholes on the top of their heads. These blowholes create a unique V-shaped blow, which also helps researchers identify the whales from a distance.
Right whales were nearly driven to extinction by commercial whaling in the late 19th century. Commercial harvest was banned in 1935. Today the North Atlantic right whale is classified as endangered under U.S. and Georgia law. Right whales are listed as a priority species in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, the blueprint for conservation in the state. Georgia adopted the right whale as its state mammal in 1985.
Although not hunted now, right whales face conservation problems including ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear and habitat destruction. Even after nearly 50 years of protected status, there are only an estimated 300 to 400 North Atlantic right whales left.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
** Be wise stewards of Georgia's natural environment and enjoy the outdoors responsibly. If boating off the Georgia coast from December to April, follow the Guidelines for Navigating in Right Whale Waters, available on the DNR Coastal Resources Division’s Web page, http://crd.dnr.state.ga.us . Report right whale sightings by calling (800) 272-8363. For more information, please visit http://crd.dnr.state.ga.us .
** Buy a nongame wildlife license plate. The DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section, which works to conserve nongame species such as right whales, receives no state appropriations. Instead, the section relies on federal grants, donations and fundraisers like license plate sales. Nongame plates featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird are available for $25 at all county tag offices, by checking the appropriate box on mail-in forms or through online renewal at http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags.
** Donate to the Nongame Conservation Section’s work through the Give Wildlife a Chance State Income Tax Checkoff. Simply fill in a dollar amount on line 26 of the long tax form (Form 500) or line 10 of the short form (Form 500EZ).
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