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November 11, 2021

CEO Note: Extinction risk rises for one of North America’s most endangered whales

Leading marine mammal experts issued a new population estimate for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and the news is dreadful. Only 336 individuals remain, an 8% population decrease from 2019-2020 levels. This rapid decline is unacceptable, especially for a critically endangered species. The new population estimate comes from the pre-eminent committee tracking the whales – a group of 200 experts called the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

We know what is killing these whales. They die entangled in fishing gear and are injured and killed when ships collide with them. That’s why the U.S. and Canadian governments must take urgent action to protect them now from these lethal threats. There can be no stronger call to action than the threat of extinction. The experts agree that we are at that moment.

Ninety percent of whales have been entangled at least once in their lifetime, with one-quarter of the population entangled every year. Many whales have been entangled multiple times. Ropes have been seen wrapped around their mouths, fins, tails, and bodies, which slow them down; making it difficult to swim, reproduce, and feed; and can be fatal. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they have severed fins and tails, and cut into bone.

Speeding vessels are also killing these whales. North Atlantic right whales are slow moving and usually swim near the water’s surface. Their dark color and lack of a dorsal fin make them difficult to spot. At high speeds, vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and the whales swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way.

Earlier this year, Oceana analyzed vessel speeds in slow zones designed to protect right whales and found that most of the vessels were exceeding speed limits. In one zone (Wilmington, NC to Brunswick, GA), almost 90% of the vessels failed to comply with the mandatory speed limit. We saw similar rates in voluntary speed zones. We also found similarly disappointing results in Canada’s Cabot Strait. Simply put, Oceana found too many vessels are failing to slow down in both mandatory and voluntary speed zones, putting right whales at risk.

The Canadian and American governments must immediately take stronger action to address these threats if we want to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction. Scientists say that even one human-caused death each year threatens their chances of survival. Under existing laws, the U.S. and Canadian governments have a duty to save these whales. New legislation is not needed, just action. This can be achieved by updating outdated fishing regulations, enforcing speed limits for vessels in areas where North Atlantic right whales are found, incentivizing fishing alternatives like ropeless gear, and increasing monitoring.

Oceana calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments to:

  • Reduce the amount of vertical lines used in fixed-gear fisheries and establish time and area closures to remove gear when right whales are present in U.S. and Canadian Atlantic waters.
  • Mandate and enforce speed limits in areas where North Atlantic right whales are present or expected to be.
  • Develop alternative types of fishing gear (ropeless) and monitoring technologies (like acoustics, satellite, infra-red cameras) that reduce risk to North Atlantic right whales and identify their presence.

The good news is these whales have proven the ability to rebuild their populations and to avert extinction. In the last century, before commercial whaling was banned, they were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling ended in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010.

These whales deserve a future and we must be their voice. If you want to help them, please tell the government to save North Atlantic right whales before it’s too late.