The North Atlantic right whale population, which inhabits the East Coast of the United States, has experienced a slight increase in numbers, according to recent estimates. The population currently stands at an estimated 356 individuals, up from the previous 340. This small growth can be attributed to the addition of calves in recent years. Although the whales have faced a 15% decline in population since 2017, the upward adjustment in numbers might indicate that their decline is slowing down.
However, the critically endangered marine mammals are far from out of danger, as noted by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The ongoing threats posed by human activities are causing the deaths of as many whales as are being born into the population, leading to a precarious situation for the species. The annual population estimates are released through a collaborative effort between scientists at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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Right Whale Population Estimate
Each year, the right whale population estimate is updated based on the confirmed births and deaths of these animals. Scientists use a catalog operated by an aquarium that maintains thousands of whale photos to identify individual whales by their unique markings.
Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at Anderson Cabot Center, explains that the primary factor behind the annual adjustments comes from the identification of previously born calves. Although aerial surveys and whale monitoring indicate calf births every winter, they are not included in population estimates until properly identified through photographs.
Obtaining accurate identification can take time, as clear images of distinctive marks on each whale may demand years of subsequent photographs. Once the identification is securely established, the whale can be added to the population estimate. This data is then reported to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which uses computer modeling to determine the final population figures.
For example, the identification of new calves led to an upward adjustment of the 2021 population estimate, from 340 to 364 whales, with an error margin of +5/-4 whales. However, Hamilton advises against focusing solely on the specific numbers; instead, he emphasizes the importance of monitoring population trends.
Kathleen Collins, senior marine campaign manager with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, also highlights that these estimates do not indicate a stable population. She stresses the need for serious collaboration between industry, government, and stakeholders to address the ongoing challenges facing right whales.
Why Right Whale Populations Have Been Rising
The population estimate for right whales increased this year primarily due to a rise in calving rates. Although calving hasn’t reached the peak levels observed in the early 2000s, the number of newborns has shown some improvement.
During the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 calving seasons, only 12 calves were born, while 44 calves were born in the next three seasons. Furthermore, 19 calves were born in the 2019-2020 season, raising hopes for higher calving rates. However, last year, the number dropped to 12 again. To restore right whales to a healthy, sustainable population, federal officials believe over 40 calves are needed each season.
The Future of Right Whale Populations
The future of many whale species appears bleak due to a combination of factors, such as a decrease in the number of breeding females, a high number of human-caused deaths, and changing ocean conditions. As per the NOAA’s findings, the extinction and decline of these animals are primarily due to these threats.
Human activities have caused more than 100 whale deaths or injuries since 2017, as reported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The current protection measures in place have been deemed insufficient in reducing the risks these marine mammals face in the wild. With fewer than 100 breeding females left, the death of even one right whale per year due to human-related causes proves unsustainable.
In 2023 alone, two whale deaths have been recorded, and 32 cases of human-caused injuries, including fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. Furthermore, experts believe that many entangled whales will eventually succumb to their injuries, adding to the already concerning mortality rate.
Many whales are found to be carrying fishing gear or displaying entanglement scars from ropes, traps, and other equipment. At least eight of these whales are either expected to die or fail to reproduce due to their severe entanglement conditions.
While the population decline appears to slow down, the long-term impact of injuries and deaths caused by humans might not become evident in sighting records for several years. An estimated 66% of right whale fatalities might remain undetected. As a result, the seemingly flat population trend should not be considered stable.
Reproduction rates of right whales face additional challenges, as studies indicate that young female whales are not growing at the same rate they once did, which may affect their ability to reproduce. Approximately 41 whales aged between 10 and 20 years have not yet birthed their first calf, even though the average age for first-time mothers was 10 years. This trend raises further alarm for the future of right whale populations.
Saving the Right Whales
The urgency to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales remains high. Agencies like Oceana tirelessly advocate for greater efforts from the federal government in implementing updated vessel restrictions and enforcing vessel speed limits, particularly along the whales’ annual migration route. These gentle giants travel from Canada and New England down to Georgia and Florida to give birth, often with companions by their side.
Many commercial shipping companies have expressed their willingness to accommodate the proposed speed zones to protect the whales. It is important to note that the majority of fishing boats already operate at or below the suggested speed limits. Similarly, recreational and charter industries are encouraged to collaborate, ensuring the safety of these magnificent creatures.
Efforts to save the right whales should focus on fostering cooperation among different stakeholders, including fishermen, biologists, and non-governmental organizations. Contrary to common perception, fishermen are not the adversaries of whales. In fact, they play a crucial role as partners in conservation initiatives that protect both marine life and their own livelihoods.
Key areas of concern to address for the protection of right whales include:
- Fishing gear: Work on innovative solutions to reduce entanglement risks, such as ropeless fishing technologies.
- Conservation: Encourage collaboration among stakeholders for sustainable practices and habitat preservation.
- Endangered Species Act: Ensure adherence to the Act’s provisions and promote protection measures.
- How you can help: Raise awareness and support organizations focused on whale conservation.
By joining forces, it is possible to find a balance that allows both the North Atlantic right whales and the fishing industry to thrive.