It's been an extremely tough year for the North Atlantic right whale. Their already fragile population has dropped by more than 3 percent and experts predict they could disappear altogether within two decades if the trend continues. This would make them the first great whale species to face extinction in modern times. According to a recent analysis at Cornell, published online in Global Change Biology, there are two main culprits: rising sea temperatures and insufficient global protection.
The North Atlantic (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of three species of right whale, which were given the name because they were the "right" whale to hunt. The cetaceans were targeted because their docile nature, coastal habitat, and slow surface-skimming feeding patterns made them easy prey.
This particular species can be found close to the United States' east coast and Canada, from Florida to Nova Scotia.
In 1949, after whaling saw the number of E. glacialis plummet, they were granted complete international protection. It worked, to an extent. The population of the North Atlantic right whale has grown over the past half-century, reaching a peak in 2010 with an estimated 483 whales (including 200 females). But more recently, numbers have dropped. There are roughly 450 whales and, perhaps most importantly, only 100 reproductively mature females alive today.
After 10 dead whales had been found this summer, Moira Brown, a researcher at the Canadian Whale Institute, told the Guardian: “We’re now looking at having lost about 2.5 percent of the known population. And it’s at least double – if not slightly more – than the number of calves born this year.”
At least six more have died since then, which is worrying, the researchers say, because when an additional 13 right whales die as a result of human causes the species could start to decline.
One reason for the decline is climate change, which is causing sea temperature to rise, which not only affect their food supply but changes their migration patterns. When the whales travel further north, they enter waters without the protections in place in their usual feeding spots and this makes them more vulnerable to commercial shipping vessels and equipment. 58 percent of North Atlantic right whales' deaths are the result of fishing net entanglements.
Even if a whale survives being caught in fishing gear, there can be long-term consequences. Researchers worry these accidents could affect reproduction rates among females.
“There needs to be a paradigm shift in the fishing industry,” Amy Knowlton, a whale expert from the New England Aquarium, told Science. While no one wants to see the whale go extinct, she said, we need government to step in to prevent economic interests getting in the way.