A whale found dead off the coast of New Jersey on Thursday was a six-month-old male North Atlantic right whale calf, researchers from the New England Aquarium confirmed Sunday evening.
The death of the calf, the first born this past season, is a blow to the endangered species’ dwindling population, officials said in a statement. Wounds along the calf’s head and body indicate that it was struck by a boat.
“Each calf represents hope for the future,” said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist who manages the aquarium’s North Atlantic right whale catalog. “These whales have life spans equal to or greater than humans. This young whale could have grown to sire many calves and help grow the population. It is a tragedy that he wasn’t given a chance to do so.”
Only around 400 North Atlantic right whales remain in the world, researchers said. The leading causes of death for the whales is fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes.
Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries received a report of a whale carcass floating off the coast of Elberon, N.J. on Thursday, according to the statement. Several organizations, including the US Coast Guard, helped tow the calf’s body back to shore. A necropsy has been completed and researchers plan to release the calf’s official cause of death soon.
Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, called early reports that the whale was killed by vessel strike “very disheartening.” While speed restrictions near ports are meant to protect whales, such restrictions ended in April when it was believed that mothers and calves would complete their migration to northern feeding grounds, she said.
“[I]n recent years, right whale movements have become less predictable and they are facing greater risks throughout their range,” she said in the statement.
A day before the whale was reported dead, a robot glider equipped to detect whale calls reported the presence of right whales near shipping lanes into New York, not far from where the calf was found. That information was shared with vessels in the area through the Whale Alert app.
Officials said the right whale community celebrated the calf’s birth as the first of the season in December. The young whale was also the first calf born to its mother, a 15-year-old female. The pair were last spotted in Atlantic waters on April 6 off Cape Lookout, N.C.
A total of 10 calves were born this winter, but it is unlikely that this calf will be the only one to die, officials said. Another calf born to a whale named Derecha has been presumed deceased after it was last seen with “horrific injuries” from a boat strike.
“These recent cases reinforce the fact that more aggressive management measures are desperately needed to address vessel strikes on this species,” aquarium officials said.
They also called for federal officials to institute broader speed restrictions: “It will only be through more proactive management by the US and Canadian governments, as well as a willingness for maritime industries to change operational practices, that we can help this endangered species avoid extinction.”