North Atlantic Right Whales May Be 'Functionally Extinct'

Story at-a-glance -

  • Only 451 North Atlantic right whales are left; in 2017, up to 18 right whale deaths were recorded, but only five new calves were thought to have been born; in 2018, no new calves have been spotted
  • Up to 85 percent of right whale deaths are thought to be caused by entanglement in fishing line, a slow, painful death that occurs over weeks, months or years; the majority of the rest are caused by fishing strikes
  • In one study of right whales, 83 percent showed signs that they’d been entangled in fishing gear at least once, and more than half of those had been entangled more than once
  • Ropeless fishing, shortening the lobster season and using lower-strength rope that poses less of a risk to whales have been suggested as ways to stop right whale deaths and possibly save the species from extinction

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

North Atlantic right whales were supposed to be a success story, poised to make a comeback up until about 2010. But now, with their numbers hovering at just 451 left, the story has turned into one of tragedy. Dubbed “right” whales because they were considered to be the right whales to hunt, these marine giants nearly became extinct in the early 1900s. Not only were they easy targets in the water, but their blubber was rich with oil and they floated when they were killed, making them an easy catch.

Just prior to the international ban on whaling, which occurred in 1935, fewer than 100 North Atlantic right whales were left in the wild; they’d been hunted nearly to extinction. However, their numbers slowly rebounded by nearly 3 percent a year, reaching 270 in 1990 and 481 in 2010.1

Since then, however, the whales have been killed off at alarming rates, often becoming the victims of entanglement in fishing gear or ship strikes. Even with efforts put in place to save them, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) states, “[I]t is thought today that the eastern North Atlantic stock is now functionally extinct.”2

North Atlantic Right Whales Face Suffering, Death From Entanglement and Ship Strikes

In 2017, up to 18 right whale deaths were recorded, but only five new calves were thought to have been born. In 2018, no new calves have been spotted. In a special report by the Cape Cod Times, the story of North Atlantic right whale No. 1140, known as Wart, highlights the many threats facing these majestic creatures. Wart, thought to be in her 50s, has been followed since 1981. She’s had seven calves and is known to have 13 “grandcalves” and six great-grandcalves.

However, her story is also one of suffering and survival, as so many right whales experience. Up to 85 percent of right whale deaths are thought to be caused by entanglement in fishing line, a slow, painful death that occurs over weeks, months or years. According to the Cape Cod Times:3

“Wart’s own life bears that out. She’s suffered through at least two entanglements and every one of her seven calves has the white scars from fishing lines. Three also have been hit by ships, and one is presumed dead. Of the 13 second-generation calves, 12 have entanglement scars, 15 percent show ship-strike scars and two are presumed dead.

Half of Wart’s third generation of calves show physical signs of entanglement, one has been hit by a ship, and two are presumed dead.”

Certain protections have been put in place, such as seasonal bans on lobster and gillnet fishing in Cape Cod Bay, where the whales are known to feed. But the animals, facing food shortages, have been venturing into new areas in Canada where protections are nonexistent. In terms of ship strikes, shipping lanes have been relocated and ships are required to slow down in certain areas. Whales are also monitored in real time. However, ship strikes still occur.

Meanwhile, the whales’ calving rate has slowed considerably. Once measured at one calf every three to five years among females who have reached sexual maturity, it’s now closer to one birth every 10 years, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.4,5

It’s possible that females are unable to reproduce because they’re lacking in nutrition and/or using up so much energy from dragging around fishing gear. There are only an estimated 100 adult breeding females left, and that was in 2015, which many experts believe is not enough to sustain the population if current death rates continue.

Is Our Appetite for Lobster Causing Whales to Go Extinct?

The East coast lobster industry is at the heart of the debate over how to save North Atlantic right whales. In early 2018, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts met with lobstermen, presenting a novel fishing method that can be done without the use of ropes. Instead, fishermen use wireless devices to bring their traps to the surface.

“Our goal in developing ropeless fishing methods is to give those fishermen who are interested in solving this problem the tools to do so,” Mark Baumgartner, Ph.D., a biologist and chair of the right whale consortium at the Woods Hole research center, told the Boston Globe. “I have yet to hear of any other solution from the industry, scientists, or conservationists that will solve this problem once and for all. Ropeless fishing will solve this problem.”6

Unfortunately, many of the lobstermen dismissed the prospect as unrealistic or unaffordable. Meanwhile, the devastating realities of fishing gear to right whales is impossible to ignore.

In one study of right whales, 83 percent showed signs that they’d been entangled in fishing gear at least once, and more than half of those had been entangled more than once.7 If they’re not suffocated and drowned by the lines, they may face a slow death from injuries or infection due to lines wrapped around their fins or starvation if the lines wrap around their mouth, preventing them from eating.

Aside from ropeless fishing, other solutions have been suggested, such as shortening the lobster season, reducing the amount of time ropes are in the water or using lower-strength rope that poses less of a risk to whales.8 Currently, North Atlantic right whales are predicted to go extinct within 25 years if efforts aren’t made to curb the killings and protect their survival. If you want to get involved in their protection, WDC recommends the following steps that we can all take part in:9

  • Email your senator and ask that marine mammal protections remain in place
  • Avoid Canadian snow crab until Canada implements measures to reduce the risk of entanglement to North Atlantic right whales
  • If you eat lobster, ask for lobster fished from Massachusetts, whose restrictions to reduce entanglements are more comprehensive than elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada