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First North Atlantic Right Whale Calf of the Season Spotted off Georgia Coast

Animals
First North Atlantic Right Whale Calf of the Season Spotted off Georgia Coast
A North Atlantic right whale was spotted with her calf in a first of the season event. NOAA permit # 20556-01 / Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Good news whale lovers!


The first critically endangered North Atlantic right whale calf of the season has been spotted off the coast of Georgia, a Daytona Beach News-Journal story published by USA Today reported Wednesday.

The mother and her calf were first spotted by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's aerial survey teams on Monday, Dec. 16, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spokeswoman Allison Garrett told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

"The mother is a known animal to biologists and this is believed to be her first calf!" the aquarium tweeted.

The sighting of North Atlantic right whale calves is such a big deal because they are an extremely endangered species of whale. There are currently only 409 left, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium estimates, and that number has fallen from more than 450 in 2016.

"North Atlantic right whales are in serious trouble," NOAA Fisheries right whale biologist Barb Zoodsma said in a press release. "We have lost 30 right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters since 2017. The number of right whale deaths is unsustainable for a population of a little more than 400 animals, particularly because we estimate that there are only about 100 breeding females who are producing fewer calves each year."

Every winter, the whales migrate more than 1,000 miles down the East Coast of North America from Canada and New England to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The waters off the Southern U.S. are the only place where they are known to calve.

"These southern waters are where right whales give birth and nurse their young. This is a vulnerable phase for right whales, making it extremely important for people to be aware of the whales' movement and migratory patterns," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife biologist Tom Pitchford told NOAA.

In 2017-2018, not a single right whale birth was recorded, according to The Associated Press. The situation improved somewhat in 2018-2019, when seven births were recorded. But this couldn't make up for the fact that 10 whales were discovered dead in 2019, three after being struck by ships and one after getting tangled in fishing equipment. Many of the dead whales were breeding females, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported.

The latest calf was spotted off Sapelo Island, which is around 50 miles south of Savannah, Georgia, The Associated Press reported. The mother was identified as #3560 in the New England Aquarium Right Whale catalog, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. She was born in 2005.

Right whales can grow to be more than 50 feet long and weigh 70 tons. They are most threatened by collisions with ships, being caught in fishing gear and changes to their feeding areas as oceans warm because of the climate crisis.

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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