The “critically endangered” North Atlantic right whale’s population continues to decline, according to a press release from New England Aquarium. A report by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium stated the population dropped 2.3 percent, from 348 whales in 2020 to 340 in 2021.
The 2020 right whale population was initially thought to be 336, but new photographic data of the animals adjusted that number to 348, according to the release.
A graph provided by New England Aquarium shows that right whales were on a path to recovery from 1990 to around 2010, approaching 500 whales, before a steep population decline began in 2015. The current right whale population is similar to numbers from around 2001.
The continued shrinking population showed that “more individual whales died than were born.” According to the release, 15 right whale calves were born in 2022, lower than the 18 born in 2021 and the 24 calves born per year in the early 2000s.
“While it is certainly good to see the slope of the trajectory slow, the unfortunate reality is that the species continues to trend downward, with fewer than 350 individuals alive in 2021,” Heather Pettis, a research scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, said in the release.
Another segment of the right whale population seeing a downward trend is females able to reproduce, and there were no first-time mothers. Additionally, the size of females spotted shrank, partly due to entanglements. Smaller whales produce fewer calves, according to the release.
In 2022, there have been five right whales entangled and seen with fishing gear, but “there have been no detected right whale mortalities.”
“There has been a lot of focus on the fact that no right whale mortalities have been detected in 2022, which is certainly a good thing. While we can be cautiously optimistic about this, we know that only one-third of right whale deaths are observed, so it is likely that some whales have died this year that were not observed,” consortium chair Scott Kraus said in the release. “Additionally, we continue to see unsustainable levels of human-caused injuries to right whales. A lot of work by many stakeholders has gone into protecting these whales, but the hard truth is it hasn’t been enough.”
Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, released statements in response to the news urging government entities, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to take action in support of the right whales.