New mortality record set for right whales off ...

New mortality record set for right whales off ...

BRUNSWICK, Ga., Feb. 23 [1996]/PRNewswire/ -- The northern right whale death toll was increased to five yesterday afternoon when wildlife biologists with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources were notified of another 1-1/2 ton calf floating 33 miles off the north end of Cumberland Island. Only Monday, the southeastern U.S. mortality record set in 1989 for this federally endangered species was matched when a dead calf was recovered in the same vicinity, bringing the count up to four in only two months. Yesterday's death has set a new record.

"There is no reason to believe the National Marine Fisheries Service will not determine this series of deaths as an 'unusual mortality' occurrence," said wildlife biologist Barb Zoodsma of the Georgia DNR's Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. If that determination is made, the Service will establish a special task force to investigate the deaths.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat was dispatched this morning to recover the animal. The whale will be towed to the Georgia DNR's Coastal Resources Division headquarters in Brunswick where, this afternoon, it will be hoisted onto a trailer and transported to the nearby Butler Island Wildlife Management Area. There, biologists will perform a necropsy in an attempt to determine the cause of death.

Nongame Program biologists have been participating in aerial calving surveys since the first of the year. However, Zoodsma and representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the New England Aquarium have been conducting supplemental off-shore aerial surveying this month because of a typical decrease in sightings during February.

"These surveys are part of an effort to learn if the whales are moving farther offshore," said Zoodsma.

In only two months, the 1996 mortality rate already exceeds the annual 1989 number, the highest rate documented since reporting began in 1970. The current series began Jan. 2, with the beaching of a female calf on Atlantic Beach, the cause of death undetermined. Three weeks later, a 47-foot-long adult male at least 20 years old was recovered 10 miles off shore of Sapelo Island, the skull shattered from a ship strike. A 35-foot-long juvenile female discovered 30 miles east of Jacksonville Beach on February 7 was too decomposed for recovery or diagnosis. The calf recovered on Monday of this week was discovered approximately 20 miles east of the south end of Cumberland Island, the cause of death undetermined as of today.

Researchers had estimated the world population of northern right whales to be approximately 300-350. Females do not reach sexual maturity until nearly 10 years of age, and a slow reproduction cycle means a low replacement rate.

"Any mortality is a blow to the population," said Zoodsma on Wednesday. "Four deaths is critical." Now the number is up to 5.

Currently, vessel collisions are the number one cause of documented right whale death. Other documented causes include fishing gear entanglement and still births, with surprisingly few recorded as dead by natural causes.

"There are actually no documented cases of natural mortality for juveniles," said Zoodsma.

Off-shore surveying is funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service and will continue daily throughout the month as weather and funding permit. For more information, please contact Barb Zoodsma at 912-264-7218. For current video footage, contact Jennifer Anderson at 912-994-1438.

The Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program is a unit of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division. The primary funding source for the Nongame Program is the State Income Tax Checkoff. To support right whale conservation, please donate to the Checkoff or send your donation directly to the Wildlife Conservation Fund, 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, Ga., 31029. Help Give Wildlife A Chance.