Saving the North Atlantic Right Whale: A Challenge We Must Accept
Climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier, and nowhere more so than in our ocean waters. Among other devastating consequences, the warming oceans mean a loss of habitat for whales along with greater competition for food. For whale migration, it's altered everything from timing and range to their ability to mate and produce the next generation. As species are threatened, and as populations dwindle, climate change has vastly reduced our margin of error in the fight to save whales. One of the biggest fights we face is the struggle to save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 336 remain. Dismal new population estimates for the species already on the brink of extinction reveal a potentially catastrophic 8% decline from 2019. Though Mother Nature's clock is ticking, there's still time to save the North Atlantic right whale.
"...the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 336 remain..."
For over 50 years, this iconic marine mammal has struggled to recover from the devastating impacts of whaling. No longer the target of harpoons, research between 2003 and 2018 found the cause of nearly 90% of right whale deaths (that could be definitively determined) result from two specific human-caused events: 1) entanglement in fishing gear, and 2) vessel strikes. Since 2017, these are the leading causes of death for a staggering 50 right whales in US and Canadian waters, necessitating the NOAA to declare the mortalities an Unusual Mortality Event (UME).
NOAA: Species in the Spotlight - North Atlantic Right Whale, May 11, 2020.
IFAW: We must act to save the North Atlantic right whale - A message from US Senator Cory Booker, December 9, 2020.
These majestic whales migrate yearly from their breeding and calving grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida to feeding grounds in coastal New England and Canada. This journey takes them through some of the most heavily industrialized waters in the world, where they encounter busy shipping lanes, boats, and areas of vertical fishing line made dense from lobster and crab gear. These whales, often with newborns in tow, risk severe injury or death through collisions with vessels or entanglement along the way.
"Weighed down by hundreds of pounds of fishing gear, entangled whales are unable to move freely, suffering from chronic stress and injury and impacting their ability to reproduce."
Vessel strikes are a serious problem and usually kill whales instantly. In the last two years alone, three right whale calves have been killed through such collisions. Stronger vessel speed reduction measures are urgently needed in habitats critical to the right whale, including mandatory slowdowns for vessels of all sizes. As the first right whale calf of the season was just spotted last week off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, change is needed immediately to ensure the population does not endure its third consecutive year of calf deaths.
"On-demand -- or 'ropeless' -- fishing gear is an innovative technology that removes the need for vertical lines in the water, except during the moment of active retrieval, therefore dramatically reducing the risk of entanglement."
The effects of entanglements, on the other hand, can persist for many months or even years. This is an immediate and urgent threat. Weighed down by hundreds of pounds of fishing gear, entangled whales are unable to move freely, suffering from chronic stress and injury and impacting their ability to reproduce. These whales often die a slow and excruciatingly painful death from drowning, starvation, or injury. Alarmingly, over 85% of North Atlantic right whales show signs of being entangled at least once in their lifetimes.
One solution comes from the fishermen themselves. On-demand -- or "ropeless" -- fishing gear is an innovative technology that removes the need for vertical lines in the water, except during the moment of active retrieval, therefore dramatically reducing the risk of entanglement. In an effort to protect right whales from entanglement while preserving the livelihoods of fishermen, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is actively working with members of the fishing industry to test and fund this gear. By advocating for federal and state funding and legislation like the SAVE Right Whales Act, IFAW aims to facilitate a transition to ropeless gear that allows fishermen to offer consumers a whale-safe seafood product. According to recent focus groups they conducted, seafood consumers revealed an intuitive sense that the government is responsible for helping to support fishermen's adoption of ropeless fishing gear. The organization is working to make that belief a reality.
"The latest population estimate is the lowest it's been in almost 20 years, and must be an urgent wakeup call to action. We have a small window of opportunity to give this extraordinary creature a chance to survive."
Climate change is a challenge for all the world in this decisive decade. But we have no time to wait and no margin for error in the fight to save any victim of man-made threats large or small. The latest population estimate is the lowest it's been in almost 20 years, and must be an urgent wakeup call to action. We have a small window of opportunity to give this extraordinary creature a chance to survive. Solving the climate threat to our oceans is complex. We are searching for answers. But innovative and effective solutions at hand today can ensure the remaining 336 North Atlantic right whales are given a last-minute reprieve. Will we accept the challenge? It's time we do, before time runs out.