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North Atlantic Right Whales Deemed Critically Endangered, One Step From Extinction

Northeast Fisheries Science Center
The dead North Atlantic right whale found off the coast of New York has been identified as Snake Eyes, seen here on July 16, 2019.

North Atlantic right whales have joined a growing list of animals on the brink of extinction. 

On Thursday, they were officially classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and added to the "Red List." 

The enormous mammals are currently the only species of large whales with that status, and it’s the last classification before they're considered extinct or “extinct in the wild."

“It’s basically an international red flag,” said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “[It’s] telling the international community that what we’re doing to protect them is not enough.” 

Hamilton said he believes the population of North Atlantic right whales has fallen under 400. 

The leading causes of death are entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with boats. The total population has “declined by approximately 15% since 2011,” according to the IUCN website.

“Of 30 confirmed human-caused deaths or serious injuries of North Atlantic Right Whales between 2012 and 2016, 26 were due to entanglement,” it reads. 

Climate change also appears to be contributing to the population decline.

“Warmer sea temperatures have likely pushed their main prey species further north during summer, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” IUCN wrote, “where the whales are more exposed to accidental encounters with ships and also at high risk of entanglement in crab-pot ropes.”

This year, several right whales have been struck by ships, leaving at least one calf confirmed dead and several more presumed dead

The good news, Hamilton said, is that saving the whales from extinction is entirely possible. 

Advancements in ropeless fishing technology and breaking-strength lines could reduce entanglement deaths. Imposing speed limits in areas where the whales are found could protect them from collisions with ships.

“I feel confident that if we have the political will to slow down ships throughout the right whale range we will eliminate death by ship strikes,” he said, “or very nearly eliminate.” 

Hundreds of North Atlantic right whales have been known to visit Cape Cod Bay each winter and spring, spurring seasonal fishing closures and vessel speed limits in surrounding waters.

But scientists and environmentalists say more work is necessary to save the whales.

“We have rules in place to protect these animals and they have not been followed,” Hamilton said. “So I just hope that by raising the awareness a little bit higher, maybe something will actually be changed.” 

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division under the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) has been criticized for multiple delays in regulations that would protect them. 

After the IUCN announced the designation today, the federal agency added a post to its website that said, “NOAA Fisheries shares the IUCN’s concern for North Atlantic right whales and continues to use its authority … to protect and recover the species."

“It is within our capabilities,” Hamilton urged, “to save this species.”

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