By Hannah E. Jones
This time of year, a group of pregnant women make their migratory journey from the coast of New England and Canada to the warm waters of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Here, during the fall months, North Atlantic right whales give birth and nurse their young before making the journey north in the spring.
Along the east coast, aquatic mammals face two major man-made threats: ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. And the impact of these threats is staggering. According to the new 2022 report of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC), the critically endangered population fell 2.3% last year.
In 2021, there were about 340 whales, eight fewer than the previous year. About 80 breeding females remain.
The NARWC, co-founded in 1986 by the New England Aquarium and its partners, is a network of members, organizations and government agencies active in right whale conservation efforts. Each October, the NARWC publishes a Insight of its annual newsletter, and on October 25 and 26, members met to discuss the findings of the new report.
The grim numbers aren’t shocking to researchers; however, the statistics highlight an already alarming situation. The species has been designated as endangered at various levels since 1970 and in 2017the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries classified the situation as an “unusual mortality event”.
Humans are the main cause of the decline of right whales. According to NOAA, when the cause of death could be determined, all juvenile and adult right whale deaths between 2003 and 2018 were due to human activities – either ship strikes or fishing line entanglements. Eighty-five percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.
In response to the 2022 report, Gib Brogan of Oceana wrote in a press release, “Each year that passes without meaningful government action is devastating to the survival of North Atlantic right whales. Fishermen, politicians, and the U.S. government must work together to put solutions in place to prevent this critically endangered species from moving closer to extinction.
To allow whales to navigate the waters safely, many scientists and conservation advocates are calling for increased protection along the coast.
In August, NOAA introduced a proposal to extend protection for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The changes would significantly expand the boundaries of the current seasonal speed limit zones, which require boats to slow down in certain areas, and increase the number of boats to which the restrictions apply. The proposal is open for public comment until Monday, October 31.
Researchers are also working on ropeless fishing, as reported in NOAA’s Ropeless Roadmap, which explores ways to develop on-demand fishing without the lines. This technology has been researched primarily in the Northeast, where fishing practices with long vertical lines—such as trap and lobster fishing—cause more entrapment problems than in the Southeast. is.
Although this is a step in the right direction, this problem cannot be solved quickly. In a previous SaportaReport interview, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) Science and policy analyst Melissa Edmonds said she was happy to see increased protections, but the team is hoping for more.
“The increased protections are much needed and, frankly, long overdue,” Edmonds said at the time. “On the face of it, we’re excited to see more protections, stronger protections. But there is still room for improvement in some small areas of the layout.
One thing is clear: to protect this species, something has to be done — fast. Click here for a more in-depth review of the status of the North Atlantic right whale, and here to learn more about NOAA’s new proposal.