- A new population estimate for North Atlantic right whales found about 356 individuals left in 2022, which suggests the population trend is “flattening.”
- In 2021, scientists previously estimated there were 340 right whales, although this number was later revised to 364 to account for several newborn calves.
- Despite there not being a notable difference between the population estimates in 2021 and 2022, scientists say North Atlantic right whales are still in danger of going extinct and that urgent measures need to be put into place to protect them.
The population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales appears to be holding steady, although experts warn they’re still in danger of going extinct.
According to a new estimate, there were about 356 individual North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in 2022, which is only a very slight decline from the previous year. The initial population count for 2021 was 340, but this was later revised to 364 when experts cataloged several newborn calves.
“While certainly more encouraging than a continued decline, the ‘flattening’ of the population estimate indicates that human activities are killing as many whales as are being born into the population, creating an untenable burden on the species,” Heather Pettis, a scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium, said in a statement. Pettis is also the executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a team of international researchers that comes up with the annual population estimates.
Members of the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Oceana have identified entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes continue to be leading causes of mortality for the species. They’ve called on government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Transport Canada to establish more robust rules and regulations to protect North Atlantic right whales.
Experts say vessel traffic and speed should be restricted, while ropeless fishing gear should be developed. However, these strategies have yet to be fully implemented.
“Each year, it’s unfortunately the same story: North Atlantic right whales are swimming along the cliff of extinction,” Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana, said in a statement. “We know what is killing these whales, and yet long-term solutions like stronger vessel speed rules are continually delayed.”
Scientists detected 15 calves born in 2022 and 11 in 2023. However, it’s estimated that right whales must produce 50 or more calves annually to allow the species to fully recover.
Humans caused 32 injuries to North Atlantic right whales in 2023, including 30 gear entanglements and two vessel strikes. Two right whale deaths were recorded, including a male struck by a vessel and an orphaned newborn calf.
The actual number of mortalities could be much higher. According to a study, about two-thirds of right whale deaths might go undetected.
“Many of these [known] injuries will likely lead to death, while other injured or sick whales may not be able to reproduce because of their condition,” Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and member of the consortium, said in a statement. “This is an important piece of the right whale puzzle. We can’t just focus on [detected] bodies. We must also reduce all injuries that harm this species if they are to turn the corner.”
Banner image: A North Atlantic right whale mother with calf. Image by Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute / NOAA.
Pace, R. M., Williams, R., Kraus, S. D., Knowlton, A. R., & Pettis, H. M. (2021). Cryptic mortality of North Atlantic right whales. Conservation Science and Practice, 3(2). doi:10.1111/csp2.346