New Estimate Finds North Atlantic Right Whale Population Still at Risk
Inadequate safeguards keep critically endangered right whales on the edge of extinction
Press Release Date: October 23, 2023
OTTAWA/WASHINGTON — A new estimate from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, released today, finds that the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population remains at risk of extinction with only around 356 whales in 2022. In 2021, their population estimate was around 340 North Atlantic right whales, but was recalculated to 364, primarily due to the recent cataloging of 18 calves born in 2021. Oceana is urgently calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Transport Canada to increase protections to save these whales from extinction.
In response to the announcement, Oceana released the following statements:
“Each year, it’s unfortunately the same story: North Atlantic right whales are swimming along the cliff of extinction. We know what is killing these whales, and yet long-term solutions like stronger vessel speed rules are continually delayed. NOAA’s job is to prevent the extinction of critically endangered animals like North Atlantic right whales, yet this species is still not on a path to recovery and desperately needs stronger safeguards from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. We cannot let political showboating, Congressional roadblocks, and finger-pointing delay needed protections for North Atlantic right whales. NOAA must establish real protections for these whales before they swim off the cliff of extinction forever,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana in the United States.
“With only around 356 North Atlantic right whales remaining, this species is at risk of disappearing forever. They are coping with a changing climate and the ever-present threats of entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. Transitioning to ropeless fishing gear is the best way to reduce the risk of entanglement and demonstrate the strong government action required under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in order to protect access for Canadian commercial fisheries to the lucrative U.S. market. Our governments can still save this fragile population from extinction, particularly if it invests in long-term funding for science, monitoring and enforcing protection measures,” said Kim Elmslie, campaign director at Oceana in Canada.
Last week, Oceana in the United States released a report that showed most boats are speeding through slow zones designed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Oceana analyzed boat speeds from November 2020 through July 2022 in slow zones established by NOAA along the U.S. East Coast and found that 84% of boats sped through mandatory slow zones, and 82% of boats sped through voluntary slow zones. This report shows that stronger safeguards and increased enforcement are needed to save North Atlantic right whales.
North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly, and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has reversed.
Collisions with boats is a leading cause of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. They are slow, swimming around 6 miles (or 9.5 kilometres) per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a vessel is a major factor in vessel-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At high speeds, vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and they swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers.
Entanglements in fishing gear used to catch lobster, crab, and other species is another leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Around one-quarter of the population is entangled in fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada each year, and about 85% have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around their mouths, fins, tails, and bodies, which slow them down; make it difficult to swim, reproduce, and feed; and can cause death. 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.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please click here.
Oceana U.S.: Megan Jordan, 703.401.3004, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oceana Canada: Vaishali Dassani, 647.294.3335, email@example.com
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-quarter of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 275 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, oil and plastic pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles, whales, and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit Oceana.org to learn more.
Oceana Canada was established as an independent charity in 2015 and is part of the largest international advocacy group dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana Canada has successfully campaigned to ban single-use plastics, end the shark fin trade, make rebuilding depleted fish populations the law, improve the way fisheries are managed and protect marine habitat. We work with civil society, academics, fishers, Indigenous Peoples, and the federal government to return Canada’s formerly vibrant oceans to health and abundance. By restoring Canada’s oceans, we can strengthen our communities, reap greater economic and nutritional benefits, and protect our future. Find out more at www.oceana.ca.