At a consortium last year, NOAA told participants there were 412 right whales remaining as of January 2018. But at Monday’s meeting NOAA said they had used new information to adjust that number downward to 383 whales.
Chasing prey that cannot be found in their usual feeding grounds, the North Atlantic right whale braves a maze of millions of vertical lines, mainly used to mark lobster gear, New England’s most profitable species. These whales are also traveling in one of the most heavily trafficked areas in the world for international and local shipping and other vessel traffic.
In recent years, the world’s most endangered great whale has shown up in Canadian waters in areas where they were rarely if ever seen and which had few of the fishing and shipping regulations and closures to protect them.
The combination has been deadly, as was revealed at the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting Monday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unveiled its annual population estimate. That report showed there were dramatically fewer whales than researchers believed.
At last year’s consortium, NOAA told participants that there were 412 right whales remaining as of January 2018. But at Monday’s meeting NOAA said they had used new information to adjust that number downward to 383 whales. They said their most recent estimate showed just 366 right whales alive as of January 2019. The 2018 adjustment and more recent mortality data means 46 fewer right whales than researchers believed were in the population.
NOAA said the estimate was preliminary and was part of a new stock assessment for the species.
After years of rebuilding, the population peaked at 481 in 2011 then started a long decline, with an estimated 103 births but 218 deaths, meaning 24 deaths per year on average. Scientists say the species can only sustain a rate of one human-induced death or serious injury per year. Even more ominous is the low number of female right whales, less than 94.
“Given the recent estimate of rate the decline, if we don’t act quickly, right whales are headed rapidly toward extinction,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States.
“The U.S. has both the ingenuity and science to dramatically reduce or even eliminate the threats to this species,” Young said. “It’s time to stop talking and stop wringing our hands and take action.”
NOAA declared an unusual mortality event for North Atlantic right whales in 2017 after a string of deaths in Canadian waters, and some in U.S. waters. The declaration brings more resources and research to bear on the problem, but the deaths have continued with 42 human-caused fatalities over the last three years. Four entangled right whales have been seen in the Northeast since February.
In its letter Monday, NOAA said it is working on a plan from an advisory group that was calculated to reduce the risk of entanglement by 60%, including 30% fewer lines in Massachusetts and 50% fewer in Maine, although Maine withdrew its support of that plan.
NOAA said it also continues to investigate with fishermen technologies that will eliminate vertical lines in fisheries or make them less likely to snare whales.
Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.