We’re causing right whale extinction — but we can reverse course

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Today, World Oceans Day, is an opportunity to join countless others around the globe celebrating the value of our ocean and to recommit ourselves to protecting marine life.

Once numbering in the tens of thousands and known to Yankee whalers as the “right” whale to hunt, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale now has a dwindling population of about 435. In 2017, 17 died and no births have been recorded this year. If immediate action isn’t taken — this ancient species, which once sustained our New England ancestors, could face extinction within two decades.

{mosads}These slow-moving whales aren’t being killed by the harpoon boats of yore or mystery predators we might see in the movies — the urgent threats to their existence couldn’t be more real. Despite its protected status in U.S. waters, 80 percent of documented right whale deaths have been caused by human activities, especially ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.


Like many of our own species, right whales winter along the coasts of Florida and Georgia and summer in cooler Atlantic waters — especially in the Bay of Fundy and southwestern Nova Scotia, Canada. Along its migratory path, “the urban whale” as Scott Kraus of New England Aquarium has called it, faces a gauntlet of threats, including busy international shipping lanes and buoy lines from innumerable lobster and snow crab traps that help feed North Americans’ appetite for seafood.

The deadly combination of physical trauma caused by collisions with high-speed vessels and entanglement with commercial fishing gear continues to jeopardize the future of the right whale population. An estimated 83 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once in their lifetime; 65 percent of the right whale mortalities in 2017 were due to entanglements.

This summer and autumn leading scientists, technology companies, and committed lobstermen will be testing experimental fishing gear to reduce the threats posed by gear entanglement.

It will take a collective international effort from the U.S. and Canadian governments, the fishing industry, whale and ocean advocacy groups like IFAW and coastal stakeholders who share the obligation to protect these beautiful mammals for future generations.

Thankfully, members of Congress support this goal and are taking action.  Sen.Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Repr. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) recently led 17 of their colleagues in making urgent, bipartisan requests for NOAA to determine whether Canada’s Atlantic fisheries have the same marine mammal conservation standards as U.S. fisheries for reducing impact to endangered right whales.

The Canadian government has made recent adjustments to shipping lanes and fishing areas in order to reduce unintended harm to the whales.  But there is much more to be done, both South and North of the border, particularly given that the vast majority of right whale deaths in 2017 took place in Canadian waters.

This is the right time to stand up for the right whale. Together, we can help fishermen explore and adopt whale-safe fishing technologies, encourage Canada to implement standards that incorporate U.S. approaches and experience, and advance whale tracking and smart shipping technologies to help ships avoid deadly collisions. By joining together across national boundaries and political divides, we can change the future for right whales and help save this species. It’s the right thing to do.

Azzedine Downes is president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), he is responsible for the strategic vision that guides IFAW’s contribution to a standard for conservation and animal welfare worldwide.

Tags Azzedine Downes Edward Markey Extinction marine life oceans right whale Seth Moulton wildlife

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