Decline of rare right whale appears to be slowing, but scientists say major threats remain

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The decline of one of the world’s rarest whales appears to be slowing, but scientists warn the giant animals still face existential threats from warming oceans, ship collisions and entanglements in fishing gear.

PORTLAND, Maine – The decline of one of the world’s rarest whales appears to be slowing, but scientists warn that the giant mammals still face existential threats from warming oceans, ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.

The population of North Atlantic right whales, which live off the US East Coast, fell by about 25% between 2010 and 2020 and was reduced to just about 364 whales in 2021. There are now about 356 whales in total , according to a group of scientists, industry members and government officials who study them.

This suggests the population is potentially stabilizing, as an equal number of whales could be entering the population as are being killed, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said Monday. However, getting an accurate count of aquatic creatures involves certain ranges of error, putting estimates for 2021 and 2022 at roughly the same number.

The whales were boosted by a strong birth year in 2021, when 18 calves were born into the population, the consortium said. However, consortium members warned that the high mortality whales face from collisions and entanglements remains an unsustainable burden.

“The news is less bad than it has been. My heart is a little less heavy, but it’s certainly not light or hopeful,” said Philip Hamilton, a consortium board member and senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “It shouldn’t depend on the whales giving birth to enough calves to reverse what we’re doing to them.”

Entangled in heavy nets and ropes, gentle giants can drown when they cannot reach the surface, or suffer serious, life-threatening injuries.

Once numerous, their populations were decimated during the era of commercial whaling. They have been protected at the federal level for decades.

Scientists say one of the reasons whale numbers are declining has to do with warming oceans and climate change. The whales, which can weigh more than 45,359 kilograms (100,000 pounds), sustain themselves by eating small ocean organisms called copepods. Each year they travel from calving grounds in Florida and Georgia to feeding grounds in New England and Canada.

As waters have warmed, whales must wander outside of protected areas of the ocean in search of food. That has left them vulnerable to collisions with large ships and getting caught in commercial fishing gear, which are their main causes of early mortality.

Numerous lobstermen have opposed the proposed fishing restrictions because they fear it would put them out of business rather than help the whales. Dave Cousens, former president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, called the proposed rules “absurd.”

Conservationists want new rules to protect whales. Federal officials have said they anticipate final action on a proposed vessel speed rule will be taken this year. Proposed new fishing laws are also in the works, but have led to a lengthy court battle.

“There is still hope for the species. Things are dire, that’s true. But with the right things, like adjustments to the speed rule, there is still hope for the future,” said Katie Moore, assistant vice president of animal rescue at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

National Marine Fisheries Service Deputy Administrator Janet Coit said the agency launched a new tool on its website last week that is designed to allow you to monitor and share how effective speed regulations are in reducing boat speeds. and reduce the threat of collisions. Coit said this is part of the government’s plan to “monitor the effectiveness of conservation efforts” to save the whale.

The right whale consortium said sublethal injuries to whales from collisions and fishing gear are also a major concern for the remaining population. Seriously injured or sick whales are less likely to reproduce.

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