North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic right whale population has a chance at recovery if entanglement & ship strikes can be avoided.
NOAA Photo Library / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

There’s a bit of good news when it comes to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Only one dead whale has been found in 2018, as opposed to the 17 that were found last year.

One possible source of improvement were the closures of the snow crab fishery in Canada and the reduction of ship speeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the whales were seen in large numbers last year.

Sam Houghton

The endangered North Atlantic right whale is facing extinction, with fewer than 450 left. The most significant cause of mortality for the whales is entanglement in fishing gear, including lobster trap lines. A lawsuit forcing the government to protect the whales may bring about a change in the way lobster fishermen have worked for more than a hundred years.

This four-bladed arrow can be used to cut fishing gear off entangled whales.
Heather Goldstone / WCAI

The disentanglement team at the Center for Coastal Studies might be forgiven for some off-color jokes. Dozens of whales get tangled in fishing gear each year. The results can be grizzly – wounds that cut to the bone, infections, starvation – if not deadly. And attempting to free entangled whales is both physically and emotionally exhausting, not to mention dangerous. What’s not to joke about?  

Bob Lynch stands on the bow of the Center for Coastal Studies' response boat, Ibis, preparing to shoot a four-bladed crossbow arrow to cut the ropes entangling a female North Atlantic right whale known as Kleenex.
NOAA/NEFSC/Leah Crowe / Image collected under MMPA research permit #17335

North Atlantic right whales are severely endangered, and entanglement in fishing gear is a leading cause of both deaths and low birth rates. A small Provincetown-based team tries to free as many whales as possible each year, but these efforts are dangerous and not a permanent solution.

Kathryn Eident

They’re hard to miss when you walk into the New Bedford Whaling Museum: four enormous whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling, nearly filling the 2-story space. There’s a humpback whale and a blue whale, but what catches most peoples’ eye is a pair of whales: a female North Atlantic Right Whale, and her calf—also a female.

NOAA

The North Atlantic right whale was once seen as an inexhaustible natural resource. It was hunted for its oil and enriched New England. That ended one-hundred years ago, but the right whale’s numbers have never been the same. Now, the whales that are left are in direct conflict with the harvesting of another rich natural resource: lobsters. 

Each spring North Atlantic right whales visit Cape Cod Bay. The mammals are well-documented by researchers, but their numbers are dwindling. It’s estimated there are fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales left. On April 18th, WCAI begins a special series of reports on the endangered North Atlantic right whale, called “In the Shadow of Extinction.”

CCS image, NOAA permit 19315-1

Researchers fear that the North Atlantic right whale may be headed toward extinction, with fewer than 100 breeding females left in a population numbering less than 450.  The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, in response to this crisis, has launched a new program called the Right Whale Emergency Initiative. 

Center for Coastal Studies

"I'd like to stand on a boat and say to them, 'What the hell's going on with you guys?'" said Dr. Charles "Stormy" Mayo, expressing his frustration at the dire situation of the North Atlantic right whales. "If I could stand there and just say: 'Tell me what's going on.' Because it doesn't make a lot of sense."

The North Atlantic right whale is Massachusetts’ state marine mammal, and a New England icon. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the species is again in danger. There are only about 450 individuals remaining, the numbers are declining, and this year was particularly deadly. A leading researcher says that, under current conditions, North Atlantic right whales are just two decades away from extinction. But he says there are technologies and policies that could change that.

The math for 2017 is pretty clear: fourteen North Atlantic right whales are known to have died, while only five new babies were sighted. It's the most dramatic example yet of what scientists have been saying for a few years, and what a new analysis makes official: these highly endangered whales are on the decline.

Entanglements and ship strikes are the leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales, as well as other large whales. The most recent North Atlantic right whale death was a young female who was found severely entangled in snow crab fishing gear.

CCS image, NOAA permit #19315

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association today announced it has lifted the suspension of whale entanglement efforts on all species except North Atlantic right whales.

The suspension was triggered by the tragic death last week of Canadian responder Joe Howlett, who was killed while freeing a right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The North Atlantic right whale population has a chance at recovery if entanglement & ship strikes can be avoided.
NOAA Photo Library / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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.

coastalstudies.org

Only 524 North Atlantic right whales remain on the Planet, plus four calves who were born this season. On The Point, we talk with scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies about efforts to monitor and protect the species, including ways to minimize ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. We also discuss the recent spate of dolphin strandings in Cape Cod Bay.

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov / Permit 15488

A sharp drop in the birth rate of rare North Atlantic right whales has scientists worried. So far this year, only three calves have been identified. A more typical season might bring between ten and fifteen newborn calves.  

"It's a frighteningly low number," says Dr. Charles "Stormy" Mayo, a Senior Scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. 

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