Many fish, marine mammals and seabirds that inhabit the world's oceans are critically endangered, but few are as close to the brink as the North Atlantic right whale ( Eubalaena glacialis). Only about 411 of these whales exist today, and at their current rate of decline, they could become extinct within our lifetimes.
From 1980 through about 2010, conservation efforts focused mainly on protecting whales from being struck by ships. Federal regulations helped reduce vessel collisions and supported a slight rebound in right whale numbers.
Deadly Encounters<p>Whalers pursued right whales for centuries because this species swam relatively slowly and floated when dead, so it was easier to kill and retrieve than other whales. By the mid-20th century, scientists assumed they had been hunted to extinction. But in 1980, researchers from the New England Aquarium who were studying marine mammal distribution in the Bay of Fundy off eastern Canada were stunned when they <a href="https://www.canadianwhaleinstitute.ca/habitats" target="_blank">sighted 26 right whales</a>.</p><p>Conservation efforts led to the enactment of regulations that required commercial ships to <a href="https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/endangered-species-conservation/reducing-ship-strikes-north-atlantic-right-whales" target="_blank">slow down</a> in zones along the U.S. Atlantic coast where they were highly likely to encounter whales, reducing boat strikes. But this victory has been offset by rising numbers of entanglements.</p><p>Adult right whales can produce up to an estimated <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12230" target="_blank">8,000 pounds of force</a> with a single stroke of their flukes. When they become tangled in fishing gear, they often break it and swim off trailing ropes and sometimes crab or lobster traps.</p><p>Lines and gear can wrap around a whale's body, flukes, flippers and mouth. They impede swimming and feeding, and cause chronic infection, emaciation and damage to blubber, muscle and bone. Ultimately these injuries weaken the animal until it dies, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsu008" target="_blank">which can take months to years</a>.</p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTU1NjEyMi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDE3OTAyNH0.W5agEwKjibM2AyhELkXhzKSssFMYXh-ubMFKApinqp0/img.png?width=980" id="9ab7d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1c03b11cfd3e2ef2603f1ea300ec75d4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fishing rope furrowed into the lip of Bayla, right whale #3911.
Michael Moore / NMFS Permit 932-1905-00 / MA-009526 / CC BY-ND
Solutions for Whales and Fishermen<p>The greatest entanglement risk is from ropes that lobster and crab fishermen use to attach buoys to traps they set on the ocean floor. Humpback and minke whales and leatherback sea turtles, all of which are federally protected, also become entangled.</p><p>Conservationists are looking for ways to modify or eliminate these ropes. Rock lobster fishermen in Australia already use <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeeieRr7sTw" target="_blank">pop-up buoys</a> that ascend when they receive sound signals from fishing boats. The buoys trail out ropes as they rise, which fishermen retrieve and use to pull up their traps.</p><p>Other technologies are <a href="https://www.wnpr.org/post/innovations-fishing-gear-could-change-lobster-industry-help-endangered-right-whale" target="_blank">in development</a>, including systems that <a href="https://ropeless.org/november-6th-2018-presentations/" target="_blank">acoustically identify traps on the seafloor</a> and mark them with "virtual buoys" on fishermen's chart plotters, eliminating the need for surface buoys. Fishermen also routinely use a customized hook on the end of a rope to catch the line between traps and haul them to the surface when the buoy line goes missing.</p><span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0ea6135b2648717554e2de7efd027ca9"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ylQ5q7Ivs2o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A Rebound is Possible<p>The <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/laws-policies/" target="_blank">Endangered Species Act</a> and <a href="https://www.fws.gov/international/laws-treaties-agreements/us-conservation-laws/marine-mammal-protection-act.html" target="_blank">Marine Mammal Protection Act</a> require the U.S. government to conserve endangered species. In Congress, the pending <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/1568/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22H.R.+3729%22%5D%7D" target="_blank">SAVE Right Whales Act of 2019</a> would provide $5 million annually for collaborative research into preventing mortalities caused by the fishing and shipping industries. And an advisory committee to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently recommended <a href="https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/team-reaches-nearly-unanimous-consensus-right-whale-survival-measures" target="_blank">significant fishing protections</a>, focused primarily on reducing the number of ropes in the water column and the strength of the remaining lines.</p><p>Consumers can also help. Public outcry over dolphin bycatch in tuna fisheries spurred passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and led to <a href="https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Division=PRD&ParentMenuId=228&id=1408" target="_blank">dolphin-safe tuna labeling</a>, which ultimately reduced dolphin mortalities from half a million to about 1,000 animals annually. Choosing lobster and crab products <a href="https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy194" target="_blank">caught without endangering whales</a> could accelerate a similar transition.</p><img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTU1NjEyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkyOTY5NX0.8G1DWmV8X9s37jlPBPxbY2X99EwZ8hdzxupVLrjghDc/img.png?width=980" id="e380d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b95b1987283f474ecab6e95fabe1093d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Population trends in the North Atlantic and southern right whale species (estimates for North Atlantic species prior to 1990 are unavailable; southern estimates prior to 1990 on decadal scale). Illegal whaling caused a downturn in the southern species in the 1960s.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jason Bittel
Imagine if safari-goers in Africa came upon an elephant trudging through the brush covered in a tangle of ropes and netting. What if, on closer inspection, they found that the animal's mouth was blocked, preventing it from eating, or that lengths of rope had coiled around and cut into its legs, making every stride a battle? Imagine if the last thing those tourists saw was the elephant disappearing into the forest, dragging a veritable ball and chain of man-made debris behind it.
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But the situation appears to be getting worse: Researchers tracking the whales' usual calving grounds off Georgia and northern Florida have not seen a single calf yet this breeding season, which started in December and peaks in January and February.
By Sam Schipani
Last year was not a good one for the North Atlantic right whale. Seventeen of them were discovered to have died, about 4 percent of a total population of 455. Numbers have been low for decades—the species was declared endangered in 1973—but if the current trend continues, the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, could go extinct by 2040.
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The population of endangered North Atlantic right whales is under threat due to entanglement in fishing gear and a resulting drop in birth rates, according to a study published by the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
Even though North Atlantic rightwhales numbers have modestly increased from 295 individuals in 1992 to 500 individuals in 2015, the rate of baby right whales born annually have dropped by nearly 40 percent since 2010, the study states.
Due to these low calving rates, the study implies that the whale's already-precarious population faces a grim future.