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Births give whale population a boost

BY CHUCK BROWN
Telegraph-Journal
January 25/03

    They're not exactly passing out the cigars, but marine scientists are excited about 14 North Atlantic right whale births, and counting, this winter.
   "This is sort of around what we had cautiously hoped for this year," said Dr. Moira Brown, a leading right whale researcher from the Center for Coastal Studies in Province town, Mass.
   "The count is not over yet. Most of the calves are born in December and January so we're cautiously optimistic that this is going to be another good season."
   The 14 whales were born in the North Atlantic right whale's traditional winter calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. They'll migrate to the Bay of Fundy in the summer.
   With only about 300 North Atlantic right whales left, and only about 75 breeding females, every birth is important for the whale population's stability.
   "This is clearly a population that is hovering on the brink," Dr. 'Brown said.
   The population is so small, scientists believe they've catalogued almost all the North Atlantic right whales in the world. They know them all by nickname.
   "We definitely need to keep working hard to reduce mortality throughout these animals' range so those calves can actually grow up and have calves of their own," Dr. Brown said. "They're only as important as the calves they have in the future, as far as the longevity and, hopefully, the growth of the population."
   And while this year's birth count will fall short of the 31-calf boom of two years ago and 22 born last year, Dr. Brown said 14 is a good number. The average number, of births per year over the past 20 years is 12.
   "It is very encouraging. We'll see with time how this persists. It's something that we monitor each year," she said. "Double figures and above average is certainly much better than what was going on in 1998, `99 and 2000. when there were only 10 calves born in all three years combined."
   Dr. Brown said scientists aren't sure why birth rates have been above average for the past three years. With a mortality rate in the first year of about 17 per cent, Dr. Brown said two or three of the 14 calves will likely not survive.
   "We're going to anxiously await these young calves to show up in the Bay of Fundy so that we'll know they've made it through the first six months of life."
   The whales should start moving north in search of food in early March and could arrive in the Bay of Fundy in July or August.
   "In the North Atlantic, the best we've ever documented was in the 1980s, which was a two-and-a-half per cent, increase. We'd be happy to get back to that at this point."

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