Washington, D.C.

Today, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium announced that the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale’s population – now at 340, down from 348 – continues its decade-long 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 20 years.

“We have the tools and knowledge to stop this precipitous decline, but 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.”

In their report, the scientists also expressed concern about the 15 calves born in 2022. The number is lower than the 18 born in 2021 and far below the average of 24 calves per year in the early 2000s. There were also no first-time mothers in the group, which supports the findings of a new paper on breeding females showing a downward trend in the number of female right whales capable of breeding. Research has also found concerning evidence of declining body size, in part due to frequent entanglements in fishing gear, with smaller female right whales producing fewer calves.

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2022 North Atlantic Right Whale Population
North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

Commercial fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes account for nearly all right whale deaths in the last decade. This year, there have been five whales entangled and seen with fishing gear attached. At least five others are known to have interacted with fishing gear, with entanglement injuries significant enough to cause wounds and scars. There was also one detected vessel strike to a right whale in 2022. However, scientists estimate that only one-third of mortalities and mortal injuries are observed annually, the true death toll is 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.

“With this new population estimate, the species number is now down to what it was around 2001. In the ensuing decade, the population increased by 150 whales; that tells us this species can recover if we stop injuring and killing them,” said Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium and the identification database curator for the Consortium.

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Right whale mother and calf March 20, 2010
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759

 

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