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There are fewer breeding female right whales than previously thought, study shows

A 9-year-old female right whale (left) and a smaller right whale spotted earlier this month off the coast of Jekyll Island.
Courtesy Sea to Shore Alliance/ NOAA Research Permit 20556
A 9-year-old female right whale (left) and a smaller right whale spotted earlier this month off the coast of Jekyll Island.

A new study by researchers from the New England Aquarium, Macquarie University, and Ursinus College, published in the journal Frontiers, shows that there are fewer breeding female right whales than previously thought.

Looking at numbers from 2018, researchers calculated that of 142 female right whales, only 72 could bear young.

Peter Corkeron of the New England Aquarium says earlier estimates assumed that females started reproducing at age 10, but in recent years they've begun reproducing later.

"This analysis doesn't get at the why this has happened, but what it's doing is showing that this has happened," Corkeron says. "It's the first step of this process. The next work along the way will be what's driving this."

According to data from the Aquarium, more than 86% of right whales are entangled in fishing gear at least once. Corkeron says reducing entanglements and collisions with ships will allow more young females to survive to breeding age.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.