Officials with the United States (US) federal government say it is time to consider the possibility that endangered right whales could become extinct unless new steps are taken to protect them.
North Atlantic right whales are among the rarest marine mammals in the world and they have endured a deadly year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said there are only about 450 of the whales left and 17 of them have died so far in 2017.
The situation is so dire that American and Canadian regulators need to consider the possibility that the population won’t recover without action soon, said John Bullard, the Northeast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. The high year of mortality is coinciding with a year of poor reproduction, and there are only about 100 breeding female North Atlantic right whales left.
Some recent scientific studies have shed some light on why whale deaths have ticked up. One, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, stated that the whales move around much more than previously thought. Some scientists have posited that whales might be venturing out of protected areas in search of food, putting themselves in harm’s way.
In another study, published last month in the journal Endangered Species Research, scientists examined right whale faeces and found whales that suffer long entanglements in fishing gear produce hormone levels that indicate high stress. The stress negatively impacts their ability to reproduce even when they survive entanglement, scientists said.
A five-year NOAA review of right whales that was released in October said the animals should remain on the endangered list. It also included recommendations to protect the species. They included developing a long-term plan for monitoring the population trends and habitat use, and studying the impact of commercial fishing on right whales.