Story at a glance

  • The North Atlantic right whale population is down to about 400 individual whales.
  • Human activities like lobster fishing and boating are responsible for some deaths.

North Atlantic right whales are now listed as “critically endangered,” with approximately only 400 remaining, data from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium states. Given this striking plummet in population, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) relisted the species as “critically endangered” from its previous “endangered.”

The Smithsonian Magazine reports that the majority of right whale deaths over the past three years have been a result of encountering boats and fishing endeavors along the coastal U.S. and Canada. Right whales reportedly swim with their mouths open to eat, and are often fatally entangled in nets and lines cast for lobsters and fish. 

“We are running out of time to save these magnificent yet very vulnerable animals,” said Vikki N. Spruill, the New England Aquarium’s president and CEO, in a prepared statement. “Whaling nearly killed right whales in the early 1900s. Science tells us that we need to take immediate and urgent steps to prevent that from happening now.”

The right whales have been suffering population declines since 2017, when there was a total of 17 confirmed dead whales between U.S. and Canadian waters. While numbers in 2018 and 2019 were not that large, an additional 13 deaths were recorded cumulatively, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries data

Further, at least 10 live free-swimming whales have been recorded with serious injuries from either vessels or fishery equipment. 

Climate change also plays a role in the population depletion. The New York Times reports that increases in temperatures have caused the Gulf of Maine’s waters to warm by about 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, which in turn reduces the amount of zooplankton that right whales feed off of. 

This news comes as a group of environmental activists in Maine sued to stop President Trump from rolling back more environmental protections implemented during the Obama presidency. The rule has reportedly helped protect right whales as well as deep sea corals, but interferes with where some fishermen harvest lobsters and crabs. 

“Lobstermen certainly recognize the dire circumstance that the right whale species is in right now,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told the Times. “We’re in this awkward situation where right whales are not doing great, and it’s certainly not the fault of the commercial fisheries.”

Conservation groups have reportedly discussed new regulations with fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on working in the right whales’ environment, including using fewer and weaker fishing lines to harvest lobsters. The Times reports that a draft proposed rule is pending review, but is not expected to be finalized until the end of 2020 or early 2021. 

Published on Jul 16, 2020