Dire news for endangered right whales: Not a single newborn spotted this year

Endangered North Atlantic right whales are facing an increasingly bleak future as researchers report they haven’t spotted any new calves this season.

Trained spotters look for newborns from December to the end of March by flying over the coasts of Florida and Georgia, where female right whales typically give birth. If they don’t see any new calves by next Saturday, it will be the first time since 1989 that newborns haven’t been found.

Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the right whale recovery program in the U.S. Southeast for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told The Associated Press that the dearth of calves could signal the “beginning of the end” for the species.

“Right now, the sky is falling,” Zoodsma said. “I do think we can turn this around. But ... what’s our willpower to do so? This is a time for all hands on deck.”

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Endangered North Atlantic right whales
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Endangered North Atlantic right whales
DUXBURY, MA - MAY 6: The fluke of a whale is seen in an aerial view of whales feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
DUXBURY, MA - MAY 6: A view of the Baleen which is a filter-feeder system inside the mouth of a right whale feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
DUXBURY, MA - MAY 6: The wakes of right whales can be see on the calm ocean waters off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
DUXBURY, MA - MAY 6: An aerial view of a right whale erupting from the blow hole while feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
DUXBURY, MA - MAY 6: Aerial view of a whale's fluke off the shores of Duxbury Beach. There were groups of the North Atlantic right whales swimming off shore. The critically endangered animals are making a comeback since they were nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. They are also making a habit of appearing off the local coastline in the spring. The whales feed on copepods by opening their mouths as they swim through masses of the tiny, but fat-rich, creatures. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
CAPE COD BAY, MA - APRIL 12: A North Atlantic Right Whale sounds while feeding on plankton in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Provincetown. A team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, was researching the right whale's food supply today during their migration north. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
391683 01: FILE PHOTO: A rare North Atlantic right whale surfaces June 27, 2001 off the coast of Massachusetts. Scientists launched a second rescue attempt July 10, 2001 to remove fishing line embedded in the infected jaw of the endangered 45-foot whale. (Photo by Getty Images)
Fin whale.Balaenotera physalus.Two whales feeding on a school of herring. Fish are escaping, jumping in the air; seabirds (Gulls and Shearwaters) are trying to catch fish. Both whales are turned on their right side; the throat pleats are distended. .Coast of New Brunswick, Canada, North Atlantic Ocean. (Photo by: Francois Gohier/VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images)
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Spotters were already alarmed in December by the lack of female right whales off the southeastern U.S. coast, NPR reported. The whales typically live off New England and Canada, but pregnant females head south starting in November to give birth and raise their calves in warmer water. But this year, spotters didn’t see any females in the south until the end of January.

Only about 450 North Atlantic right whales exist, and only 100 of them are breeding females. Seventeen of the animals washed up dead in 2017, and one was found this year. Many were struck by ships or entangled in fishing line, including line between floating buoys and lobster traps. The line can cut through the whales’ fins, cause infections and drag them down, sapping their strength.

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Eight species on the brink of endangerment
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Eight species on the brink of endangerment

Whooping crane (Gurus americana)

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Harlequin frog (Atelopus spumarius)

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Giant panda (Ailurodpoda melanoleuca)

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Snow leopard (Panthera unica)

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Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus)

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Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou)

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Chevron butterflyfish (Chaetodon trifascialis)

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Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)

(Photo via Getty Images)

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Only five newborns were spotted during calving season in 2017. The whales typically average about 17 births a year.

Some scientists are holding out hope that the mothers have shifted their locations and that calves might be somewhere spotters aren’t looking — or that the births may rebound in the future.

But many researchers fear that the species is being decimated by ship strikes, fishing line and climate change. The whales feed on phytoplankton, which is temperature-sensitive. As water temperatures increase off New England, the phytoplankton population is decreasing.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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