The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species.
Its population loss appears to be slowing. But scientists warn that the large sea animals still face threats from getting caught in fishing equipment, being struck by ships, and warming oceans.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that by the early 1890s, commercial whalers almost destroyed the species. They got their name from being the "right" whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed.
Commercial whale fishing is no longer a threat, but its population has never fully returned. They have been protected under United States law for many years now.
The North Atlantic right whale is about 16 meters long and weighs more than 63,000 kilograms. The whales can probably live for 70 years. However, female North Atlantic right whales are now only living to around 45 years old. Such reduced lifespans are caused by human activities, not old age.
The NOAA estimates that fewer than 350 right whales are remaining off the U.S. East Coast. From 2010 to 2020, their population fell by about 25 percent.
This week, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) said the population decrease appears to have leveled off. A strong birthing year in 2021, when 18 baby whales, or calves, were born, kept whale population numbers up, the NARWC said.
However, the organization warned that the high number of deaths faced by whales from getting caught in fishing equipment or struck by ships remains a major problem for the whales.
“The news is less bad than it has been. My heart is a little less heavy, but certainly not light or hopeful,” said Philip Hamilton. He is a member of NARWC and a senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “It shouldn’t be dependent on the whales to give birth to enough calves to reverse what we’re doing to them.”
Scientists say another reason why whale numbers are decreasing is warming oceans and climate change. The whales eat very small ocean organisms called copepods. They travel from calving grounds off the coasts of Florida and Georgia to feeding grounds off New England and Canada every year.
As waters have warmed, the whales must travel outside of protected areas of the ocean in search of food. That has left them open to strikes with large ships and getting trapped in commercial fishing equipment. Those are the biggest causes of early death.
Many fishermen have opposed proposed fishing restrictions that they fear would hurt their business rather than help whales. Dave Cousens, a past president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, has called the proposed rules “nonsensical.”
But environmental groups want new federal rules to save the species, including one to make ships slow down for whales.
I’m Gregory Stachel.