Wrong trend for right whales amid ‘devastating’ population decline

Wrong trend for right whales amid ‘devastating’ population decline

  • A newly released estimate suggests that only 340 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales remained as of 2021, a 2.3% decline from 2020, when the population numbered around 348.
  • Fewer calves have been born in 2022 so far, corroborating research that suggests that North Atlantic right whale species are becoming less capable of reproducing.
  • No adult mortalities have been recorded in 2022, but experts say that only about a third of whale deaths are recorded.

The population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales continues to dwindle, sparking concerns that the species might be creeping closer to extinction.

A newly released estimate suggests that only 340 individuals of the species Eubalaena glacialis remained as of 2021, a 2.3% decline from 2020, when the population numbered around 348. This estimate is also in sharp contrast with the 2010 calculation of about 483 individuals.

“With this new population estimate, the species number is now down to what it was around 2001,” Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium and a member of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a group of experts dedicated to the protection of the species, said in a statement. In the 10 years since that 2001 low, Hamilton said the population “increased by 150 whales.”

“[T]hat tells us this species can recover if we stop injuring and killing them,” he said.

The population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales continues to dwindle.

Experts are also becoming increasingly concerned about the drop in birth rates. In 2021, 18 North Atlantic right whale calves were born; in 2022, only 15 have been born, including one that died and another feared unable to survive after its mother, whom scientists have named Snow Cone, got entangled in fishing ropes multiple times. Researchers also didn’t detect any first-time mothers this year, which corroborates a recent study that suggested that fewer North Atlantic right whale females are capable of reproducing.

In the early 2000s, the average number of calves born each year was 24.

Other research has shown that North Atlantic right whales are declining in body size, possibly due to their frequent entanglement in fishing gear, and that smaller females tend to produce fewer calves.

However, experts point out that there have been no recorded moralities this year (with the exception of the calf), despite about 10 recorded instances of right whales getting entangled in fishing gear, and one vessel strike.

A right whale and its calf.
A right whale and its calf in January, 2022. The mother had been entangled in fishing rope since March, 2021. Image by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“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,” Scott Kraus, a scientist at the New England Aquarium and chair of the consortium, said in a statement. “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. Additionally, we continue to see unsustainable levels of human-caused injuries to right whales. A lot of work by many stakeholders has gone into protecting these whales, but the hard truth is it hasn’t been enough.”

With North Atlantic right whales continuing to decline, conservationists, scientists, and government officials have been looking for ways to conserve these gentle giants, called “right whales” because they were once prime targets for whalers. Conservation attempts have included fishery closures, vessel speed restrictions in certain areas of the North Atlantic Ocean, and a move to roll out “ropeless” or “on-demand” fishing gear that could decrease right whale mortality. However, experts say the U.S. and Canadian governments need to do more to protect the species from extinction.

“Another year of population decline is devastating for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales,” Kim Elmslie, campaign director at Oceana Canada, said in a statement. “We must prioritize their protection before it’s too late and find ways for humans and marine life to coexist.”

Related reading: 

U.S. charts course for adopting ropeless fishing to reduce whale deaths

Banner image: A North Atlantic right whale. Image by Moira Brown and New England Aquarium via Wikimedia Commons.

Citations:

Stewart, J., Durban, J., Europe, H., Fearnbach, H., Hamilton, P., Knowlton, A., … Moore, M. (2022). Larger females have more calves: Influence of maternal body length on fecundity in North Atlantic right whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 689, 179-189. doi:10.3354/meps14040

Reed, J., New, L., Corkeron, P., & Harcourt, R. (2022). Multi-event modeling of true reproductive states of individual female right whales provides new insights into their decline. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.994481

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