In a shocking and tragic blow to the recovery of North Atlantic right whales, at least 13 whales have died this summer—11 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada and two in U.S. waters off Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

Right Whales, Photo credit:  Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit 594-1759 This is the deadliest two-month period in decades for a species already critically endangered. There are only 450 to 500 of these right whales left along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States.

Necropsies show that some whales died from blunt-force trauma consistent with ship strikes, and at least one resulted from fishing gear entanglement. In response, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed the snow crab fishery two days early and is temporarily requiring ships to slow their speeds to 10 knots or less in the gulf. To protect right whales in U.S. waters, the “ship strike rule” sets speed limits for large vessels around major ports during their seasonal migration. The U.S. also has regulations that close areas to trap and pot fisheries at certain times and require gear to help reduce the risks of whales becoming entangled in fishing lines.” Although U.S. protections for right whales need to be strengthened, these are the types of protections right whales in Canadian waters lack and desperately need,” says Jane Davenport, Defenders’ senior staff attorney. 

Right whales are slow to reproduce and calf births have declined by nearly 40 percent every year since 2010. Only three calves were born in 2017. 

“This unprecedented loss is devastating,” says Davenport. “Only a few years ago, we were cautiously optimistic that this whale was on the road to recovery.” 


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