The Challenges Facing the North American Right Whale

In the 11th century, Basque sailors in Northern Spain became the first modern whalers, where they hunted for oil, bone, and baleen in the Bay of Biscay. By the 16th century, these same whalers traveled across the Atlantic to modern-day Canada, where they targeted a particularly large and slow species that swam near the coast: the North Atlantic Right Whale. In the 1800s, this whale was killed by the dozens if not hundreds each year as the “right” whale for valuable whale oil. By the time right whale hunting was internationally outlawed in the 1930s, the North Atlantic Right Whale species (Eubalaena glacialis) was on the brink of extinction, having barely 200 individuals remaining.

Reaching 60ft long and weighing nearly a hundred tons, North Atlantic Right Whales are one of the largest animals in the world, behind only giant cousins like the blue whale. Long extinct regionally in Europe, modern Right Whales are now found exclusively up and down the East Coast of the United States and Canada. For twenty years – from 1990 to 2010 – Right Whales saw a brief resurgence, with their population nearly doubling in part due to better monitoring and new mandatory ship speed limits. Yet in recent years this recovery has collapsed, and North Atlantic Right Whales are once again on the brink of extinction.

Range of the North Atlantic Right Whale (NOAA)

On the Brink of Extinction

Since 2017, 31 individual Right Whales have been killed due to humans: a nearly 10% loss of their total population in only 3 years. Where only recently the species appeared to have been pulled from the brink of annihilation, scientists now believe that, should deaths continue at their current rate, the North Atlantic Right Whale will enter an irreversible decline in the next decade. In July, the IUCN placed the whales on its “Critically Endangered” list, saying that the species was “one step” away from extinction.

The culprit of this decline is the unintentional effects of one industry: lobster fishing.

Lobster fishing is a major economy in Maine and Eastern Canada, with thousands of fishermen making their living fishing for the crustacean. Although fishermen don’t intend for lobster fishing to harm whales, the method in which lobsters are caught – featuring several long fishing lines that connect lobster traps on the ocean floor to floating buoys on the surface – poses a huge danger for Right Whales, which easily get caught in these lines. Once entangled, Right Whales are easily injured while trying to escape or can even drown, as the lines prevent them from reaching the surface to breathe.

Today, almost all modern right whale deaths in the Atlantic can be attributed to entanglement, with a startling 85% of North Atlantic Right Whales believed to have had at least one encounter with lobster fishing lines, with 60% having been entangled multiple times.

The injuries and deaths caused by entanglements aren’t the only way lobster fishing is impacting Right Whale populations. Stress caused by entanglements is also affecting the rate in which female right whales birth calves. While Right Whale females historically birthed a calf every two to three years, now it is closer to every six to 10. In the last birthing season from 2017-2020, only 12 calves were born, less than a third of the numbers of previous generations. At least two of these calves have since been killed in 2020 alone. Between entanglement deaths and low birth rates, Northern Right Whales are likely to vanish from our seas within the next generation.

Conservation Efforts

But there is still time to save this species. In Canada, new rules designed to prevent entanglements, such as season-long fishing closures off the Gulf of St. Lawrence and new fishing gear requirements, will go into effect starting in 2021. In addition, two new “seasonable management” areas will be established where mandatory speed limits for ships will be put into place during seasons where whales are present. As seas grow warmer and whales venturing further north to feed, Canada’s conservation efforts are particularly important, especially as today most deaths occurring in Canadian waters.

In the United States, however, conservation efforts have backslid. In 2016, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – a protected marine environment off the coast of New England – was closed in order to protect whales from fishing; this year, the U.S. government decided to resume fishing in this protected area, putting more whales in harm’s way. Efforts to create new protected areas for right whale feeding, as proposed by the Pew Charitable Trust, have likewise failed to gain traction in the government, which considers them harmful to the lobster fishing industry in Maine.

As the world enters into an age of mass biodiversity loss caused by human-driven overfishing, deforestation, and climate change, the fate of the North Atlantic Right Whale serves as a bellwether for how we tackle the biodiversity crisis of the 21st century. With the right rules, regulations, and conservation efforts, this species so historically decimated by humans can still be saved. Or it might instead go the way of the Tasmanian Tiger, Falkland Island Wolf, or Western Black Rhino: species brought to extinction by human actions. The future of the North Atlantic Right Whale, as well as dozens of other species on the brink of extinction, relies on the decisions we make today to address the biodiversity crisis while these species still remain.

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article by Devin Windelspecht

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