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Deaths Heighten Alarm About Future of North Atlantic Right Whales

The North Atlantic right whale population has a chance at recovery if entanglement & ship strikes can be avoided.
NOAA Photo Library
Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading causes of death for endangered North Atlantic right whales.

2017 is shaping up to be one of the worst years on record for North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered large whale species. There are only about five hundred individuals left, and numbers have been declining in recent years. A spate of recent deaths has sparked particular concern.

In June and early July, seven North Atlantic right whales were found dead near the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in Canadian waters. It is not certain what killed them, but two showed signs of blunt force trauma (usually an indicator of being hit by a ship) and another was entangled in snow crab fishing gear.

Ship strikes and entanglements are the leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales. When the whales congregate in Cape Cod Bay each spring, efforts are made to reduce these threats by implementing speed limits for ships and restricting the lobster fishery. There have been no such protections for right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is a major shipping thruway and home to a growing snow crab fishery.

That could change, according to Mark Baumgartner, head of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The Canadian government has said they are committed to protecting North Atlantic right whales, and has temporarily shut down the snow crab fishery in the area where whales have been seen.

However, right whale researchers have already spotted additional animals entangled in fishing gear. And the death of a rescuer, Joe Howlett, while disentangling a whale last week has prompted U.S. officials to suspend disentanglement activities. It’s unclear what that means for the fate of the entangled animals.  

“Entanglements can last for a long time,” Baumgartner said. “Unfortunately, we may get – or fortunately, we may get – a chance at disentangling these animals.”

The events of the past few weeks come on the heels of an already dismal year for the species. Only five calves were observed this spring, and one individual died of a ship strike while in the Cape Cod area. That means 2017 is guaranteed to be a year of decline for North Atlantic right whales, and the loss of nearly two percent of the population in a single year has researchers alarmed.

“Things can go very badly, very quickly for a small population,” said Baumgartner.

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