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North Atlantic right whale population drops again, to 336

A North Atlantic right whale that a team of state and federal biologists assisted in disentangling. Since 2017, 46 individual right whales have been found dead or seriously injured. This represents more than 10% of the population, <a href="https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale">according to NOAA.</a>
NOAA News Archive 123110
NOAA News Archive 123110
Aerial photographs show a North Atlantic right whale entangled in rope off Daytona Beach in 2010. A 2012 study from the New England Aquarium revealed that more than 80 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once in their lives and 60 percent have been entangled more than twice.

The population of North Atlantic right whales fell to an estimated 336 in 2020, the latest indication that the critically endangered species is edging closer to extinction.

That number represents an 8 percent decrease from the 2019 estimate, and the lowest population estimate for the species in nearly 20 years, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which announced the news today ahead of its annual meeting.

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium/New England Aquarium

“We are obviously discouraged by this estimate, but quite frankly, not surprised,” Heather Pettis, associate scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and executive administrator of the consortium, said in a statement.

In 1990, the population plummeted to 268, though the number may have been even lower in the early 1900s when the whales were nearly hunted to extinction. In 2011, it recovered to 481, a 30-year high.

Since then, entanglements in rope and fishing gear and collisions with ships have been leading causes of death for the whales, causing the population numbers to drop once again. In the past 10 years, the species has declined by 30 percent.

“There is no question that human activities are driving this species toward extinction. There is also no question that North Atlantic right whales are an incredibly resilient species,” Dr. Scott Kraus, chair of the consortium, said in a statement “No one engaged in right whale work believes that the species cannot recover from this. They absolutely can, if we stop killing them and allow them to allocate energy to finding food, mates and habitats that aren’t marred with deadly obstacles.”

The consortium is reporting that in 2021, there were two documented mortalities, but 18 births.

“The combination of fewer detected deaths and an increase in births provides some rare good news for this species” Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium and the Identification Database curator for the consortium, said in a statement. “We estimate there are less than 100 breeding females remaining. Let’s hope that calving continues to improve with many more positive years ahead if we are to reverse the species’ downturn.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.