North Atlantic Right Whale
© NOAA

North Atlantic Right Whale

Threats to Right Whales

North atlantic right whales are in danger of disappearing forever. Today, only around 430 survive, and fewer than 100 of them are breeding females. These massive marine mammals migrate each year between their northern feeding grounds in coastal Atlantic Canada and New England to their calving grounds in the warm waters off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and back. It is a journey fraught with danger as the whales navigate waters where they encounter vessel traffic, hundreds of thousands of fishing ropes and other hazards associated with human activity.

Entanglement in fishing gear

North Atlantic right whales are easily entangled in the vertical ropes connecting trap/pot and gillnet gear to surface buoys. Trapped underwater unable to surface, entangled whales will drown. Others will drag the heavy fishing gear along with them and suffer serious injuries and infections as the ropes cut deeply into their bodies. Some slowly starve if the ropes are wrapped around or through their mouths. Entanglements also interfere with their ability to reproduce. On average, female right whales are only having calves once every 10 years instead of every three.Dragging heavy gear weakens females, robbing them of the ability to build up blubber, which stores the energy they need to carry, birth and nurse their calves.

Incredibly, 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whales show entanglement scars. Entanglement is by far the most frequent cause of right whale deaths and has reduced their lifespans from 70 or more years to only 30 to 40 years.

Collisions with ships

Right whales pass through some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world during their annual migrations. Blunt force trauma from collisions with ships seriously injures or kills right whales. Females are especially at risk—80 percent of documented right whale ship-strike fatalities

are females. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency tasked with protecting right whales, set regulations that require vessels longer than 65 feet to slow down in U.S. waters when whales are migrating through certain areas. Although this rule has been effective at significantly reducing ship strike deaths, fatalities still occur.

Accelerating decline

According to a recent study, the North Atlantic right whale has been in decline since 2010. From June 2017 to date, the rate of decline has accelerated, with 20 dead right whales recorded. This is double the total number for the last five years combined and more than at any time since commercial whaling ended. Experts attribute these deaths, like all North Atlantic right whale fatalities, to either entanglements or ship strikes. And these are only the verified deaths—scientists estimate that as many as 80 percent of right whale deaths may go undetected. Their low birth rate is also cause for alarm. Not a single new calf was seen in 2018, and only five calves were born in 2017. With deaths far outpacing births, if we do not act, scientists predict that we will lose these whales forever within the next several decades.

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