The most recent issues of Right Whale News (Volume 25; Number 4) and the 2017 right whale status Report Card are sobering to say the least. The litany of bad news for North Atlantic right whales is relentless.
16 whales are known to have died, primarily from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. That represents 3% of the population in one year.
The birth of new whales was extremely low this year: only 5 births, compared to the average of 20.
There were no new mothers observed this year, and there are only 100 breeding females.
With the addition of this year’s data, the average calving interval has also increased, from 4 years to 10 years.
The official estimate of the North Atlantic population dropped this year from 529 to 451, because the method of estimating had to be changed due to the fact that it is becoming harder to find and observe the population. Until a few years ago, a large portion of the population appeared every year in the Bay of Fundy, so the total population could be reliably estimated based on those observations. That is no longer true, and the newer method shows the total population has been declining since 2010.
This all adds up to very bad news for right whales. At current rates of mortality, right whales could be functionally extinct (no more breeding females) in twenty years. The biggest threat to right whales now is entanglement in fishing gear. Human demand for fish and lobster and crabs is running head-on into the survival of North Atlantic right whales. Over the years, many attempts have been made to introduce new gear that is less dangerous to whales, but that costs money. Fish abundance is declining, which means greater fishing effort is needed to catch the same number of fish.
But right whales are also threatened by ship strikes, by ocean pollution, by noise pollution and by global warming. There is no easy way to save the right whales. Doing so requires fundamental changes in human behavior. We have to care as much about them as we do about ourselves, and be willing to change how we live, in order that they may continue to live.