Today, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium announced that the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale’s population continued its decade-long decline, dropping from 366 in 2019 to 336 in 2020—an 8% decline. The species’ population has plummeted by 30% in the last decade, down from 481 in 2011. The latest estimate represents the whale’s lowest population estimate in nearly 20 years.
“Despite having the tools and knowledge to halt this precipitous decline, policymakers have eschewed taking effective action for years,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “In that time, the right whale population has been decimated by fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. We are watching – and causing – the species’ extinction in real time.”
Human activities remain the greatest threat to the North Atlantic right whale, with commercial fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes accounting for nearly all right whale deaths in the last decade. In 2017, federal officials declared an Unusual Mortality Event after 17 whales were confirmed dead in U.S. and Canadian waters. Since 2017, a total of 50 right whales have been confirmed dead or mortally injured. But since scientists now estimate that only one-third of mortalities and mortal injuries are observed annually, the true death toll is far higher.
When right whales get tangled in fishing gear, they can drown immediately or die over an extended period from injuries, infections and/or starvation. Even nonfatal entanglements sap whales of strength and decrease reproductive success. Chronic entanglements in heavy gear drain a whale's energy, so much so that it now takes females nearly 10 years between births to have another calf. Experts estimate that over 86% of right whales have been entangled at least once.