North Atlantic right whales are on the brink of extinction, study says

North Atlantic right whales are on the brink of extinction: Fewer than 366 are left as a result of climate change killing krill that the mammals eat to survive

  • The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered whale on the planet 
  • Vessel collisions and entanglements in fishing nets remain the biggest threat
  • Rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change threaten the krill they eat
  • While the population is slightly higher than in 2019, the bump is not enough to offset the death rate

The number of endangered North Atlantic right whales remains dangerously low.

There are fewer than 366 surviving specimens, according to a new assessment.

Vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing nets remain the biggest threat to the massive marine mammals, but climate change is leading to rising ocean temperatures that endanger the krill the whales eat to survive.

The saddening trend can still be reversed, experts say, with focused efforts to protect the whales’ safety and increase their reproduction.

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There are fewer than 366 remaining North Atlantic right whales on Earth, according to a new assessment aggregating monitoring data from  tagging studies, aerial and vessel photography, animal sampling and other sources

The North Atlantic right whale is a baleen whale and is one of three right whale species belonging to the genus Eubalaena.

Feeding in the waters off New England and eastern Canada in the spring and summer, it migrates to the southeastern US every winter to give birth.

It got its name because it was considered the ‘right whale’ to hunt during the commercial whaling era of the 1700s.

Their slow speed, high blubber content and habit of sticking close to the coastline made the whales a popular target for whalers and led to the species’ decimation.

The number of whales is higher than the 356 counted in 2019, but according to experts, humans are ‘killing the creatures faster than they can reproduce.’ Pictured: A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface off near Cape Cod 

In 1990, there were as few as 270 surviving individuals.

Protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, they are the most endangered whales on Earth.

Conservationists have worked to increase their numbers, and by the end of 2019 there were an estimated 356 North Atlantic right whales.

The current calving season, which began in November and ends this month, was the most encouraging in years, with more than 14 new calves sighted off the Florida coast.

North Atlantic right whales faced three main challenges: boat collisions, entanglements in commercial fishing lines, and steady loss of their main food source, krill, as it migrates north to escape rising ocean temperatures

In January, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported 65 North Atlantic right whales off the coasts of Florida and North Carolina, crucial birthing areas for the whales.

Those numbers included three new calves born to first-time mothers.

But humans are still ‘killing the creatures faster than they can reproduce,’ according to Defenders of Wildlife attorney Jane Davenport.

‘Right whales face a daily gauntlet of fishing ropes and speeding vessels, which together have caused the deaths of more than 200 right whales in the last decade alone,’ Davenport said in January.

That month, a severely entangled right whale was seen dragging rope through the calving grounds off the coast of Georgia.

At least 33 whales have been killed in the last four years, and 15 seriously injured, primarily from vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

These losses represent almost 10 percent of the remaining population.


A North Atlantic right whale seen swimming the waters off Cape Cod on April 14, 2019 

  • Adults of the species can reach up to 52 feet in length and weigh up to 77 tons 
  • From the age of ten, grown female North Atlantic right whales give birth to young once every 3–6 years. 
  • 40% of right whale’s body mass is low-density blubber.
  • Unlike most species of whale, the right whale floats when it dies 
  • Right whales feed by skimming through patches of their prey concentrated in surface waters. They eat krill, barnacle larvae and small crustaceans.
  • It’s thought they typically live to age 50, though some individuals have lived twice as long. 
  • North Atlantic right whale populations have been growing by around 2.5 percent a year, still below the 6–7 percent rise researchers are hoping to see for the species to move off the endangered list.

Michael Moore, a whale trauma specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is the author of a new report in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

According to Moore, fewer than 366 surviving North Atlantic right whales remain on Earth.

‘North Atlantic right whales face a serious risk of extinction, but there is hope if we can work together on solutions,’ he said. ‘Trauma reduction measures and applying new tools to assess their health are critically important to enhance the welfare of individual whales.’

If researchers, government officials and commercial fishing companies can work together to devise proactive solutions, ‘the current decline in population can be reversed,’ Moore said.

He and his colleagues at Woods Hole collaborated with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and over a dozen other institutions to gather monitoring data from tagging studies, aerial and vessel photography, animal sampling and other sources.

Their analysis provides the clearest picture of the threats the whales face from commercial fishing and vessel traffic throughout their annual migration south.

‘These animals face multiple stressors throughout their range and their survival depends both on a better understanding of how these stressors impact the whales as well as effective management to reduce this burden,’ said co-author Robert Schick, a research scientist at Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab.

The docile creatures spend a lot of time near the surface during calving season and can be difficult to spot from a vessel, leading to collisions with watercraft.

Climate change is also taking its toll: Small crustaceans like krill and copepods, which make up the whales’ primary food source, have migrated further and further north to escape rising ocean temperatures.

That’s forced the North American right whales, which need an average of 2,000 pounds of krill a day to survive, to swim farther to feed, contributing to significant loss of body mass.

That, in turn, has led to lower birth rates and delayed sexual maturity in males. 

‘In addition to the threats posed by humans, changing ocean conditions have profound impacts on where whales travel and how they behave,’ said co-author Teri Rowles, a senior advisor for marine mammal health science at NOAA Fisheries.

A comprehensive study last May determined the North Atlantic right whales could be completely wiped out in the next 20 years without additional intervention.

Another species, the Southern right whale, is faring better, with an estimated 12,000 spread across the Southern Hemisphere.

But that’s still miniscule compared to the more than 100,000 that existed before they were decimated by the whaling industry in the 19th century.

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