North Atlantic Right Whale Given Less Than 100 Years

BOSTON, Massachusetts, July 25, 2005 (ENS) - The North Atlantic right whale faces extinction within the next 100 years if the current mortality rates continue, new research from a group of senior marine scientists reveals.

Their study titled "North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis" appears in the Friday edition of the journal "Science," a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In the past 16 months, there have been eight recorded right whale deaths - almost three times the average annual rate in 25 years of study of the species - but many more whales of this species are believed to have died during that time period.


North Atlantic right whale breaches off the East Coast of the United States. (Photo courtesy New England Aquarium)
The group's population models indicate that only 17 percent of right whale deaths are detected each year, leaving 83 percent undiscovered. According to this model and based upon the known deaths, as many as 47 right whales may have died in the past 16 months, although only eight of the deaths have been detected.

Based on these figures, the North Atlantic right whale population may have declined by as much as 13 percent in the past 16 months.

"Recent increases in calving rates, an average of 23 annually over the last five years, are inadequate to overcome this level of mortality," the paper states. "Without changes in the management of shipping and fisheries, right whales face extinction within the next 100 years."

"Despite good calving years, our population models suggest that there are still more whales dying than being born every year," says Scott Kraus, lead author and senior scientist at the New England Aquarium.

The eight dead whales included six adult females, three of which carried near-term fetuses. At least four of the whales were killed by human activities; ships hit three; and one whale was entangled in fishing gear. Ship strikes and gear entanglement account for at least half of all recorded deaths of this species, the scientists report.

Scientists estimate that less than 350 North Atlantic right whales remain alive today, and that populations are declining by at least two percent per year.

Right whales range in the coastal waters of eastern North America from the Canadian Maritime provinces to Florida, regions heavily used by the military and by fishing and shipping industries.


Path of a North Atlantic right whale intersects with the course of a large ship. (Photo courtesy New England Aquarium)
Despite international protections since 1935, North Atlantic right whales remain one of the most endangered whale species in the world after 1,000 years of whaling brought it close to extinction in the early 20th century.

While there have been efforts to minimize the risk of ship strikes - mandatory ship location reporting, extensive aerial survey efforts and mariner education - the scientists say that the initiatives do not lead to a reduction in ship strike mortalities.

They are calling for migratory corridors and changes in the operation of ships within right whale habitats.

In June 2004, NOAA Fisheries proposed a strategy for reducing collisions between ships and North Atlantic right whales. The strategy includes measures tailored to vessel traffic patterns, ocean conditions, and right whale behavior during times and in areas where collision risk is high.

"We believe the strategy proposed today can make U.S. waters safer for right whales," said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries at the time. "Vessel strikes are a leading human-caused threat to these rare whales, and we have worked closely with maritime commerce professionals to devise this strategy."

But the U.S. Coast Guard has refused to endorse speed restrictions, citing national security, and earlier this month requested an interagency meeting before any speed limits could be imposed on ships, whether commercial or military.


Dead right whale entangled in fishing gear (Photo courtesy New England Aquarium)
New England Aquarium senior right whale researcher, Amy Knowlton, among others, is frustrated with the regulatory process required for the protection of right whales. "Some valuable and potentially effective ideas have been developed," she said. "However, these ideas have yet to become regulations and languish in a bureaucratic maze."

Although the risk of fishing gear entanglements has been addressed through gear modifications and selective area closures, the co-authors declare those closures inadequate because they do not fully address the seasonal movement of right whales.

If nothing is done soon, says Kraus, the North Atlantic right whale could disappear. "We really could be watching an extinction occur in our lifetime due to our inaction."

The scientists recommend the immediate implementation of interim emergency rules to address the current crisis and emphasize the need for renewed support now from the U.S. Congress and research community as well as the fishing industry.

Co-author Douglas Nowacek, Florida State University assistant professor of oceanography, said, "This is in our power to control. The Endangered Species Act has a clear mandate to stop extinctions. For this whale, it is time to enforce that mandate."