Environment

Right whale population continues to decline, only 340 left, report says

North Atlantic right whales are struggling to reproduce and survive due to frequent entanglements in fishing gear.

Snow Cone was spotted with a calf in December 2021. New England Aquarium

The North Atlantic right whale population is continuing to decline, reaching a low this year that it hasn’t seen since the early 2000s, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual report on the current right whale population.

The consortium estimated the population of the critically endangered species to be around 348 in 2020. It estimates that there were around 340 right whales in 2021.

“While it is certainly good to see the slope of the trajectory slow, the unfortunate reality is that the species continues to trend downward,” Heather Pettis, executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, said in a news release.

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In their report, the scientists said they’re concerned that only 15 calves were born in 2022. This is down from the 18 born in 2021, and far below the average of 24 calves born per year that the species experienced in the early 2000s.

There were also no first-time mothers this year, the scientists said, which supports the findings of a new paper on breeding females that show a downward trend in the number of female right whales capable of breeding. 

Research has also found evidence of declining body size in right whales due to frequent entanglements in fishing gear. Smaller female right whales produce fewer calves, the scientists said.

“With this new population estimate, the species number is now down to what it was around 2001. In the ensuing decade, the population increased by 150 whales. That tells us this species can recover if we stop injuring and killing them,” Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, said in the release.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium releases a report on the number of right whales still living each year. – North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

So far in 2022, scientists haven’t recorded any right whale deaths, the release said. While this is encouraging, roughly two-thirds of right whale deaths go undocumented.

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Additionally, right whale mother “Half Note” lost a calf, and there is concern that the latest calf birthed by the chronically entangled whale “Snow Cone” has died.

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Last month, New England Aquarium scientists reported that Snow Cone has become so entangled in fishing gear that she is dying painfully and slowly.

This year, five whales have been recorded tangled in fishing gear. At least five others are known to have entanglement injuries severe enough to cause wounds and scars. There was also one recorded incident of a boat hitting a whale this year.

“We continue to see unsustainable levels of human-caused injuries to right whales. A lot of work by many stakeholders has gone into protecting these whales, but the hard truth is it hasn’t been enough,” consortium Chair Scott Kraus said in the release.

Earlier this month, Maine lobstermen hired a former U.S. Dept. of Justice official to help them fight laws intended to protect whales. That came in the wake of a watchdog group recommending consumers stop eating lobster, as fishing equipment used to catch the crustaceans often ends up entangling right whales.

To learn more about right whale conservation, visit the consortium’s website.

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