North Atlantic right whales are facing a crisis. Just 409 survive in the world, according to data from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, and the whales continue to die at an alarming rate.
Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved the species from “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered” on their "red list" of threatened and endangered species, Jamey Keaten and James Brooks report for the Associated Press.
Most right whale deaths in the last three years have been linked to interactions with vessels and fishing operations along the coast of the United States and Canada, per the IUCN. Right whales swim with their mouths open to catch copepods, tiny zooplanktons, and other small sea creatures that make up the majority of their diet.
As they swim with mouths agape, they can easily become entangled in the fishing lines that connect lobster and crab traps to the ocean’s surface, as Tom Cheney reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2018. Ships can also strike and kill the whales, who often feed close to the surface. Entanglement and deadly collisions can cause massive, devastating injuries to the animals.
Many scientists believe that climate change is partly to blame for the uptick in right whale deaths. The whales typically migrate in the summer from their calving grounds in Georgia and Florida to the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy. As the ocean warms, however, copepod populations have shifted north, causing the whales to follow their food source further north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, reports Lisa Friedman for the New York Times.
Estimates in 2018 showed that without a substantial turn for the better, the whales could be “functionally extinct” in 20 years, reported Cheney at the time.
“It’s devastating,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, told the Atlantic’s Ed Yong in June 2019. “There’s now more people working on right whales than there are right whales left.”
Scientists suspect that an average of 17 calves per year need to be born for the population to grow, as Brigit Katz reported for Smithsonian magazine last year. However, studies show that birth rates for female right whales have declined dramatically over the last few years. Fewer than 250 sexually mature right whales were estimated to exist in the wild in 2018, according to the IUCN.
In 2017, the NOAA Fisheries declared an “Unusual Mortality Event” as right whale deaths ticked up to even higher numbers. In the last three years, 31 right whales off the coast of the U.S. and Canada have died and 10 have been seriously injured, nearly all the result of crashing into vessels or entanglement in fishing gear.
On June 25 this year, the carcass of a six-month-old calf—the first observed earlier this breeding season—was discovered floating off the coast of Elberon, New Jersey. He had likely been hit by two separate vessels, NOAA Fisheries said in a statement.
Recently, President Donald Trump vowed to defend the U.S. lobster industry, which means the administration will likely not advocate for measures to protect the whales at the expense of fisheries in the area, reports Friedman.
Right whales were severely threatened by hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries—at one point, their numbers dropped to an estimated 60 mature individuals, reports Cheney. The whales even got their names from hunters: slow and easy to kill, they were known as the “right” marks because they would float to the surface after dying. At the turn of the 21st century, right whale numbers were estimated at about 500, due in part to serious protection measures against hunting. Now, the population is once again on the decline.
“For nearly a century, North Atlantic right whales have been protected from the commercial whaling that pushed them to the brink of extinction, but they continue to be killed by human activities,” says Jane Davenport, the senior attorney for conservation nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “…This status change is a call to arms: unless we act decisively to turn the tide, the next time the right whale’s Red List status changes it will be to ‘extinct.’”