The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium announced Monday that the North Atlantic right whale population dropped to 336 in 2020, an 8 percent decrease from 2019, and the lowest number for the species in nearly 20 years.
The consortium, which was co-founded in 1986 by the New England Aquarium and partners from the University of Rhode Island, the Center for Coastal Studies, Marineland of Florida, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, formed as a means for right whale researchers to collaborate and share data in order to understand and protect the species.
“There is no question that human activities are driving this species toward extinction. There is also no question that North Atlantic right whales are an incredibly resilient species. No one engaged in right whale work believes that the species cannot recover from this. They absolutely can, if we stop killing them and allow them to allocate energy to finding food, mates, and habitats that aren’t marred with deadly obstacles,” Dr. Scott Kraus, chair of the consortium, said in the release.
The right whale population has been on a downward trajectory since 2011, when the species had its highest population estimate at 481 whales. Over the course of 10 years, the population has declined by 30 percent. Human impacts caused by entanglements in fixed fishing gear and vessel strikes remain the biggest threats to the right whale’s survival.
“Recent research shows that body lengths of right whales have been decreasing over the past four decades, with life-threatening entanglements leaving individual animals with less energy to devote toward growth and reproduction. New England Aquarium research has also shown that 86 percent of identified right whales have been entangled one or more times in fishing gear,” the release states
Conservationists, scientists, government agencies, and fishing and shipping industries have worked in collaboration to reduce the lethal and sublethal impacts caused by humans.
“We as humans have put these whales in the predicament they are in, and we have the ability to help them out of it. Broad collaboration and a long-term commitment to ensuring this species’ survival are required, and urgent actions to prevent entanglements and collisions with vessels must be implemented,” Heather Pettis, associate scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and executive administrator of the consortium, said in the release.