North Atlantic right whale population levels off, but they’re still ‘swimming along the cliff of extinction’

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The North Atlantic right whale population might be leveling off after years of decline, but the critically endangered species still faces significant threats as the whales keep “swimming along the cliff of extinction,” according to advocates.

A new estimate from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium has found that the North Atlantic right whale population was around 356 whales last year.

In 2021, their population estimate was around 364 animals North Atlantic right whales, primarily due to the recent cataloging of 18 calves born that year.

“While certainly more encouraging than a continued decline, the ‘flattening’ of the population estimate indicates that human activities are killing as many whales as are being born into the population, creating an untenable burden on the species,” said Heather Pettis, a research scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

There have been two detected deaths of right whales this year: a 20-year-old male struck and killed by a vessel and an orphaned newborn calf.

While it’s promising to have only two documented deaths, research shows roughly two thirds of North Atlantic right whale deaths go undetected.

Meanwhile, New England Aquarium scientists have detected 32 human-caused injuries to right whales this year, including six fishing gear entanglements with attached gear, 24 entanglement injuries (with no attached gear), and two vessel strikes.

“Many of these injuries will likely lead to death, while other injured or sick whales may not be able to reproduce because of their condition,” said Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center.

“This is an important piece of the right whale puzzle,” Hamilton added. “We can’t just focus on (detected) bodies. We must also reduce all injuries that harm this species if they are to turn the corner.”

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Calving numbers continue to lag behind what scientists saw a decade ago. This past calving season, just 11 calves were born — fewer than the previous two years (18 in 2021 and 15 in 2022).

Human-caused activities like entanglements and vessel collisions are the main threats to the North Atlantic right whale population, advocate groups said.

“Each year, it’s unfortunately the same story: North Atlantic right whales are swimming along the cliff of extinction,” Oceana said in a statement. “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.”

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