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Humpback whales on the rebound off Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO--Last year, nearly 11,500 humpback whales were counted off the coast of Brazil — a new record, the Baleia Jubarte Institute cheered Sunday in a report.

That's 2,200 more whales than were counted four years ago in the same stretch of water, between Rio de Janeiro and the northeastern Sergipe state, the institute said.

And a decade ago, when scientists made their very first count in these waters, they were only able to spot 3,400 of the aquatic giants.

The species — which travels to the area from Antarctica to breed each year from July to October — had nearly completely disappeared from Brazilian waters after the Spanish first introduced predatory whaling in the 1600s.

But since 1987, Brazil has forbidden the practice and launched an education campaign encouraging fishermen to stay away from whale breeding grounds and from places the underwater mammals could get caught in nets with their calves.

The population growth is encouraging, Baleia Jubare Institute President Marcia Engel said, though stressing there is still a long way to go before the species fully recovers.

“Their number today is only equivalent to 27 percent of the original population before the hunt” in the 17th century, she told local media.

Engel noted that the whales are also suffering from the declining population of krill — small shrimp that are a staple of the giant mammal's diet.

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