- Right whales, distinguished by their v-shaped blows and white growths on their heads, are critically endangered.
- Only 15 calves were born last winter, a steep decline below the average of 24 calves seen in the early 2000s.
- In the past decade, the whale population has seen a 28% drop.
- To protect the endangered whales, the NOAA is working on new rules to restrict fisheries and boat speeds.
North American right whales continue to decline in number, dropping to an estimated 340 of the critically endangered marine mammals, according to a report released Monday.
Down from an estimated 348 last year, it’s the smallest annual decline in six years for one of the world’s most endangered large whale populations, but it’s still a loss of more than 110 whales in just five years.
The latest estimates prompted renewed calls from scientists and conservation organizations to do more to protect the whales, which can sometimes be seen close to shore in Canada, New England and the Southeast.
Population estimates come from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a group of more than 200 individuals with whale conservation and research organizations, US and Canadian agencies, and the shipping and fishing industries. The consortium begins its two-day annual meeting Tuesday to work on its annual “report card.”
“While it is certainly good to see the slope of the slow trajectory, the unfortunate reality is that the species continues to trend downward,” said Heather Pettis, the consortium’s executive administrator and a research scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
The massive whales, which weigh up to 70 tons and reach lengths of 50 feet, face a number of threats, including warmer oceans, vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.
Pregnant female right whales and assorted others, including some juveniles and males, migrate from the waters off New England and Canada each winter for a calving season off the coasts of Florida and Georgia. An expansive volunteer network complements surveys by conservation organizations and agencies by watching for the whales from beach walkovers and condominiums. The whales can be distinguished in part by their v-shaped blows and unique growths on their heads that appear white.
Only 15 calves were born last winter. It was the lowest number of calves in three years and a steep decline below the average of 24 calves seen in the early years of the new century. No first time mothers were reported.
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No whale deaths have been confirmed this year, but researchers say many of the animals are never recovered after they die.
“There has been a lot of focus on the fact that no right whale mortalities have been detected in 2022, which is certainly a good thing,” Consortium chair Scott Kraus said in a news release. “While we can be cautiously optimistic about this, we know that only one-third of right whale deaths are observed, so it is likely that some whales have died this year that were not observed.”
Researchers fear that a whale known as Snow Cone and her almost year-old calf are dead. Snow Cone defied the odds by giving birth to a calf off the Georgia coast last December despite being entangled in rope. She was seen without her calf in Canadian waters in July.
She was spotted again during an aerial survey in September. Researchers found her emaciated, pale and swimming slowly with additional entangling ropes.
Her first calf, born during the 2019-2020 calving season, died at 6 months old after being struck by ships multiple times.
The Consortium’s initial estimate last year was 336 whales, but it was later amended to 348 after researchers finished reviewing all of the whale photographs taken during surveys. Overall, the whales have seen a 28% reduction in population from the estimated 471 whales a decade ago.
Many have worked to protect the whales, Kraus said, “but the hard truth is it hasn’t been enough.”
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One recent study concluded that only 72 of the 142 female North Atlantic Right Whales identified in 2018 are capable of reproducing.
“The current trajectory for breeding females is shocking,” stated the study’s lead author, Joshua Reed, a doctoral candidate at Macquarie University.
Study co-author Robert Harcourt pointed out the whales live in one of “the most industrialized habitats of any whale species.”
“Due to the highly urbanized environment, biological and human factors have impacted the survival of the North Atlantic right whale including reduced food availability, vessel strikes, entanglements, and a declining female population,” Harcourt said.
Their research supported earlier studies that concluded the whales’ reproduction is being affected by dwindling food supplies and entangling gear which can prevent them from eating enough nutrient rich food to stay healthy.
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Tumultuous time for whales
The new population estimate comes at a tumultuous time, with ongoing court cases, controversy over the impact of lobster fishing on whales, and pending federal rule changes for fishing and vessel speeds in the Southeast.
Lobster fishermen are protesting the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s recent placement of lobster on its list of foods to avoid because of the decline in right whales. Maine lobstermen argue there’s not enough evidence to support such a move, which they say will devastate the region’s economy, especially villages devoted almost entirely to lobstering.
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A federal judge ruled earlier this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s measures to reduce whale deaths and injuries among fisheries did not do enough to protect the whales. A public comment period on NOAA’s latest plan ended Oct. 11.
On Monday, the federal government released a draft strategy for right whale protection during offshore wind development.
Meanwhile, a public comment on the agency’s proposed new rule to slow down vessels off the Southeastern United States ends Oct. 31.
Stronger regulations are needed to protect the whales, especially mothers and calves, said Gib Brogan, director of right whale advocacy for the ocean conservation organization Oceana.
The whales have shown they’re resilient and persistent despite the threats they encounter, and he’s optimistic about their future if the chronic threats and stress can be minimized, Brogan told USA TODAY.
“Things are grim for the species right now,” he said. “But I’m really hopeful that if we can do what’s necessary for the whales, that they will turn the corner and come back.”