New population estimate suggests only 356 North Atlantic right whales left
'Our responsibility is to keep from killing them,' says consortium chair
There are just 356 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, according to a newly released estimate that is down from last year's population count for the endangered species and which one scientist calls "gut wrenching."
The latest numbers are from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which is meeting this week and brings together scientists, shipping and fishing industries, and government agencies.
The population last year was estimated at 409, and researchers who study the right whales say the latest numbers are devastating.
"Gut wrenching. Feeling like the floor is falling out from underneath you," said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
"To us it's a lot more than just a number. These are individuals that we've known, for me, for my entire professional life."
Hamilton said there are roughly 70 breeding females in the population. He said low birth rates coupled with whale deaths means there could be no females left in the next 10 to 20 years.
And the time to act is running out.
"We have to do it now. We cannot say, 'OK, let's do a few more studies,'" Hamilton said. "We know they're dying. We know they're getting entangled. We just have to up the protection measures."
The whales are counted through surveillance by aircraft and from ships, with scientists noting individuals based on the unique markings on each animal.
There has been just one death recorded in 2020 — a calf killed in U.S. waters. In Canadian waters there have been no ship strikes or entanglements in commercial fishing gear, the two main causes of death in right whales, reported so far this year. The right whales spend their summer months feeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Hamilton said part of the reason for the big drop in numbers is that the population model was catching up to data from 2017. There were 17 deaths recorded during that year, but Hamilton said scientists now know it was "worse than we thought initially."
He said it's now believed 42 whales died in 2017, but many were not counted at the time because they were never spotted floating dead in the water or washing up on coastlines.
Canada's federal government has taken protection measures, such as temporary and permanent fisheries closures, particularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and speed limits on vessels in areas where the right whales are known to frequent.
"The Canadian government has moved relatively quickly and the Canadian fishing community has moved pretty quickly," said Scott Kraus, chair of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.
"Throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I think we're seeing significant improvements."
But both Kraus and Hamilton say that because the whales move around so frequently in search for food, larger areas need to be closed off.
Kraus said many of the whales are also not getting enough to eat, which means they're travelling more in search of new feeding grounds and spending more energy — which makes it difficult for females to reproduce.
While about a third of the right whales head to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to feed in the summer months, scientists at this point are unclear where the rest of them go during that time.
The latest population estimates do not include the seven calves born in 2019 and the 10 born this year. Two of those calves have already been killed.
"Every winter, when it goes into calving season, I have a little burst of hope, but my hope is being constantly eroded," Hamilton said.
The new calves are not included in the population catalog because they need to be spotted again after at least six months when they have developed unique markings, which Hamilton said can take years.
"It may take a decade or so before all the right whales figure out ... where the food is, but eventually they'll figure it out," Kraus said.
"Our responsibility is to keep from killing them during that time so that we don't lose them all."
But Kraus said he still feels hopeful that things can turn around. Part of what's giving him that hope is seeing so many different groups come together to try and save the species from extinction.
He points to the Ropeless Consortium, which met earlier this week and brings together various industries to help develop technology that reduces the chance of entanglement in fishing gear and which is also economically viable for fishermen. He called the collaborations "the future of right whales."
"We need to figure out how guys in the water, whether shipping or fishing, can continue to make a living and not kill whales," he said. "I think it may be several years out, but we're making a lot of progress."