Article by: Jane Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List maintains the North Atlantic right whale as one of the ocean’s most critically endangered species, with numbers in sharp decline.
While historical pre-whaling estimates suggest that the right whale population was once 9,000 to 21,000, only about 250 mature whales exist today.
However, North Atlantic right whales are vital to ecological health, distributing essential nutrients from their feces from the deep sea ocean floor to water surfaces. When they die, they provide nourishment for various marine organisms.
The threats to right whales are widespread, and scientists are working vigorously to implement conservation solutions before it’s too late. Here’s why the North Atlantic right whale is endangered and how scientists are trying to implement solutions for their survival.
Why Are North Atlantic Right Whales Endangered?
The plight of North Atlantic right whales has long been attributed to vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and slower reproduction rates. Likewise, climate change has played a crucial role in right whale mortality.
Ocean warming has made it difficult for several species to endure — temperatures just above 68 F can drive mass die-offs of the ocean’s inhabitants.
Recent studies found that climate change led to ecological disturbances in right whales’ feeding grounds as plankton — the species’ primary food source — disappeared. The whales followed their food north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where fewer marine protections made them more vulnerable to collisions and entanglement.
In New England, resident right whale Snow Cone recently suffered her fifth entanglement in which hundreds of feet of rope got stuck around her jaw and baleen — the filter-feeding system in the right whales’ mouths. Scientists have not seen her or her calf recently and suggest she may have died from starvation. If so, her death before she turned 18 would be a sign of the human-caused perils this species must navigate as right whales typically have a 70-year life span.
Collisions with boats also remain one of the highest threats to the North Atlantic right whale, with mothers and calves most vulnerable since they rest closer to the coast on high-traffic marine highways.
Scientists saw a 2% drop in North Atlantic right whales in 2021 from 348 to 340 — well below the estimated 480 whales recorded in 2010.
Thankfully, the rapid decline in North Atlantic right whales has compelled various parties to act.
Implementing Conservation Solutions
Scientists, organizations and government officials have implemented numerous North Atlantic right whale conservation solutions to address the dying species.
For example, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is pursuing legislation to fund and develop ropeless fishing gear technologies to prevent future right whale entanglements.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) has also spearheaded North Atlantic right whale initiatives by developing stringent vessel regulations. It’s designating 40,000 square miles of federally protected right whale habitat along the U.S. east coast.
Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed revisions to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to impose further speed regulations for vessels.
According to a new Oceana report, there’s currently a 90% noncompliance rate for mandatory speed regulations in right whale habitats and an 85% noncompliance rate in voluntary areas. More stringent speed rules could reduce right whale collisions with vessels by 80%-90%.
Additionally, in September 2022, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program added over 12 fisheries to its seafood “Red List” because of their effects on the North Atlantic right whale’s survivability. The aquarium’s list warns consumers and businesses that certain seafood is farmed and caught in ways that harm marine life.
Your Role in Saving North Atlantic Right Whales
There are several ways you can help save the North Atlantic right whales and prevent other endangered marine wildlife from going extinct.
Avoiding products that lead to unsustainable fishing can reduce demand. The addition of American lobster to the Red List because of the impact of lobster fishing on this species suggests that not supporting this industry until it adopts ropeless technologies is an individual action that could have an impact.
Pollution is a continual threat to ocean habitats. Anything you bring to your local beach should be taken home or thrown away. Picking up waste, recycling plastics and cutting up six-pack rings before tossing them in the trash can help prevent entanglement.
Boaters should also reduce their speed and stay alert, looking for signs of nearby right whales, such as splashing, white water or dark objects. Federal law mandates that watercraft keep a minimum of 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales, equal to five football fields.
Donating to right whale conservation organizations, signing petitions for better species protection and participating in beach litter cleanup campaigns are other ways to get involved.
The Fight to Save North Atlantic Right Whales
If dwindling population numbers are of any indication, there’s little time left to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction. However, the species’ survival is critical to ocean ecology. You can do your part with the scientific community to save the North Atlantic right whale before it’s too late.