After years of decline, the North Atlantic right whale population may be stabilizing, according to new numbers released this week from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Though the estimate shows a positive development, conservationists warn the critically endangered marine mammals still face significant threats from human activities.
“It eases the weight on my heart a little bit, but we have a long ways to go,” says Philip Hamilton, a biologist at the New England Aquarium and the consortium’s identification database curator, to WBUR’s Barbara Moran.
Scientists counted about 356 North Atlantic right whales for 2022. That’s down from the roughly 364 whales estimated in 2021, but conservationists say the latest number indicates the population may be leveling off. From 2010 to 2020, for comparison, the population dropped by roughly 25 percent. The right whales’ numbers likely peaked at 483 individuals in 2010.
These large marine mammals can grow up to 52 feet long and weigh as much as 140,000 pounds. Whalers hunted them to the brink of extinction by the early 1890s—and even named them for their relative easiness to retrieve, since their bodies floated to the surface after they were killed. This made them the “right” whales to hunt.
Since 1970, North Atlantic right whales have been protected under the Endangered Species Act. However, their mortality rate remains high because of human activities. The whales can drown after getting tangled in fishing gear or succumb to life-threatening injuries after being struck by boats.
Human-caused climate change is also contributing to the animals’ demise, reports Patrick Whittle for the Associated Press (AP). As oceans warm, the whales are venturing outside of protected marine areas in search of their primary food, small crustaceans named copepods. This has made them more vulnerable to entanglement and vessel strikes.
Already this year, 32 North Atlantic right whales have suffered human-caused injuries, which could lead to death or an inability to reproduce, per the consortium.
In addition, scientists have documented two deaths so far in 2023: an orphaned newborn calf and a 20-year-old male killed by a vessel. But, they say, most North Atlantic right whale deaths go undetected, so this year’s fatality numbers may not tell the whole story.
Conservationists want stricter rules to help protect the whales, like fishing restrictions and vessel speed limits. However, some fishers and boaters have opposed new protections over fears they will go out of business.
“These animals really are everywhere,” says Sean Brillant, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Paul Withers. “There’s not a lot of them, but they’re everywhere. And all the more reason we need a full-court press to solve the problem of the injuries we’re causing them.”
Biologists are also keeping an eye on a concerning reproductive trend: Females are waiting longer to give birth to their first calf. In past decades, adult females typically had their first calf when they were around 10 years old. Today, however, more than 40 females between the ages of 10 and 20 still haven’t given birth, according to the consortium.
And while new calves are being born each year, birth rates are still falling short of past trends. In the 2000s, an average of 24 calves were born annually, per the consortium. In 2023, scientists recorded just 11 new calves.
Numbers have been slightly higher in recent years—with 15 new calves in 2022 and 18 in 2021—but scientists still worry North Atlantic right whales aren’t reproducing quickly enough to make up for the deaths caused by humans.
“It shouldn’t be up to the right whale to have to give birth enough to accommodate the rate at which we kill them,” says Hamilton to USA Today’s Dinah Voyles Pulver.