The North Atlantic right whale is not only one of the rarest whale species in the world, it is the one most at-risk. While the days of commercial whaling may be over, human activity remains their biggest threat. Once numbering in the tens of thousands, there are fewer than 415 right whales left alive today. Among remaining right whale, fewer than 100 are breeding females. At best, we have only five years to reverse this course before it’s too late. Without committed and immediate action, the species will become functionally extinct in just two decades.
Every year, the North Atlantic right whale migrates from its breeding grounds off the coasts of Florida and Georgia to the waters of New England and Canada. As their migratory path up and down the East Coast is one of the most active for fishing and shipping, the whale is particularly susceptible to the dangers posed by human activity.
Entanglements in commercial fishing gear and collisions with ships are the most common causes of mortality among North Atlantic right whales. In 2017, there were 17 documented deaths and no new calves were born in 2018. With so few whales remaining, every right whale loss is devastating and represents a major blow to the recovery of the species as a whole. Each individual matters within the broader population and when numbers reach this critical point, the negative impact is even greater.
Human activity is threatening the right whale, but human activity can also save it. We have already seen proactive measures including mandatory ship reporting of whale sightings, reducing ship speeds, and changing shipping lanes result in significantly fewer fatal vessel strikes. Still, their depleted population means more must be done to prevent collisions.
When it comes to protecting right whales from entanglement, however, the road is fraught. Despite the efforts of NOAA and the fishing industry, entanglement in fishing gear remains the primary cause of right whale mortality, accounting for 72 percent of diagnosed deaths.
The presence of over 600,000 vertical lines in the migratory path of the right whales means the risk of entanglement is constantly high. An entangled whale is essentially laden with hundreds of pounds of rope and gear, resulting in chronic suffering as the ropes cut deeply into their skin, weighing them down and preventing them from swimming, diving or feeding normally. The struggle can often last many months before a whale succumbs to its wounds or starvation.
Entanglement also exacerbates the right whale’s already slow reproduction rate. In 2009, the average mature female right whale gave birth to one calf every four years, and 67 percent of the individuals that were able to give birth did so. By contrast, in 2017, right whales were giving birth every eight years, wherein only 7 percent of available cows delivered a calf. The suffocating weight of hundreds of pounds of fishing gear and being unable to properly feed leaves little energy for a right whale to bring a calf to term.
Proactive and sustainable solutions like rope-less fishing gear and other whale-safe technologies are in development through partnerships with conservation groups and the fishing industry, but more needs to be done — and fast.
The federal government has a responsibility to protect the right whale. Fortunately, the House Natural Resources Committee is evaluating threats to the right whale in a hearing Thursday. Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation GOP lawmaker says he did not threaten US Embassy staff in Tajikistan House panel approves B boost for defense budget MORE (D-Mass.) also reintroduced legislation that would foster the innovation necessary to preserve this iconic species: the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) Right Whales Act. Passing the SAVE Right Whales Act would provide much needed research and resources for the fishermen, tech companies and researchers collaborating to save the right whale and preserve a viable fishery. For the North Atlantic right whale to be placed on a path towards recovery, we must collaborate together to forge a new path forward. Undoing the harm we’ve inflicted on our oceans continues to be one of the most pressing conservation challenges of our day. Time is quickly running out.
Beth Allgood is U.S. country director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.