North Atlantic right whale calves No. 3 and 4 spotted amid backlash to new protections

right whale 3292 fwc
The regulatory package advanced by NOAA Fisheries would further limit fixed-gear traps and pots.

North Atlantic right whales need more than 50 calves a season to stabilize the population and halt a human-caused dive into extinction. While that seems like it would take a miracle based on prior years and lack of effective whale protections, each new calf counts. 

Recently, researchers discovered the third and fourth calves of the season. Right whales venture all the way south from their northern feeding grounds to give birth in the warmer waters off Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.

The third whale of the season came courtesy of Porica, right whale No. 3292. A survivor of two fishing gear entanglements, she gave birth to her third calf and was seen near Ossabaw Island, Georgia. It’s her first calf since 2011. Right whales used to calve every three to six years, but that’s stretched to more than 10 years for many, including Porcia in this case. She’s estimated to be older than 21 years.

“Her first calf succumbed to an entanglement at the age of 10,” according to the New England Aquarium. “Porcia’s latest known calf was found floating dead, wrapped up in fishing gear, just shy of his second birthday. We can only hope that this current calf will go on to outlive both its siblings.”

Right whale No. 1711 doesn’t have a name yet, but she gave birth to her fourth calf during the past week, as a survey team found the pair near Cape May, Georgia. At 36 years old, No. 1711’s survived three fishing gear entanglements. Her three other calves endured 11 gear entanglements and one vessel strike between them. 

This calf is her first since 2017.

Extensive time, effort and data show, by far, the biggest threat to the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales is fixed-gear lobster and crab traps in waters off New England and the Canadian Maritimes. These heavy ropes maim and lead to the death of these whales, of which there are around 340 or fewer, with fewer than 100 calving females.

Maine lawmakers inserted a provision in a congressional omnibus spending proposal that would negate a federal judge’s ruling mandating tougher regulations. The ruling, made this summer, states the federal government hasn’t done enough under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act to save right whales from extinction.

“Cognizant of the potential effects of this ruling on the lobster industry — and on the economies of Maine and Massachusetts — and given the highly complex statutory and regulatory environment that this case involves, the Court orders no remedy here,” the judge wrote. “Instead, it will offer the parties the opportunity for further briefing to articulate alternatives the Court may select.”

The regulatory package advanced by NOAA Fisheries would further limit fixed-gear traps and pots, along with more extensive speed zones for vessel traffic in order to cut down on the other major threat to the whales, ship strikes. A strike by a vessel as small as 30 feet long could prove fatal.

The Maine lawmakers’ provision would put a halt to all that, keeping the 2021 regulations in place for six years, and includes $40 million set aside for gear deployment and technology, like ropeless, on-demand traps and pots. Another $10 million would go toward grants to lower entanglement risk and vessel strikes.

A lot of hopes are pinned on on-demand gear, that can allow the lobster and crab fishery to transition and continue as economically feasible while not being an existential threat to the whales.

Independent Maine Sen. Angus King disputed data discussed by NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team that shows lines in the water were the top threat to whales.

“You know what kills most whales? Ships,” King said to The Washington Post. “Why aren’t we banning all ships all along the East Coast of the United States if we’re saying we can’t do anything that remotely threatens whales? Instead we’re picking on 5,000 small business people in Maine. It’s unfair and wrong.”

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook:

One comment

  • cassandra of the swamp

    December 20, 2022 at 4:33 pm

    The whales should be protected by whatever means necessary. No one owes you a profit. If you refuse to comply with the law/regulations you get fined out of existence and your assets auctioned off to support whale conservation. Injure a whale, you go to jail.

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