Right whale #4440 seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in August 2019 with fresh entanglement wounds on his peduncle. He had previously been entangled with rope and was able to shed the gear following a disentanglement response in July 2019. (Photo: Kelsey Howe, New England Aquarium/Canadian Whale Institute)

MA - Right Whale Consortium Releases 2020 Report Card Update

356 whales. That’s all scientists believe remains of the iconic North Atlantic right whales.

Named because they were once considered “the right whales to hunt” because they swam close to shore, produced high yields of whale oil and baleen, and—thanks to their thick blubber—floated when killed. The species may not be hunted anymore, but the threats it faces from humans are no less keen. Entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and the shifting distribution of food sources due to climate change plague the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale species, which has been in decline since 2010.

In late October, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) held a virtual version of its annual meeting. Every year, hundreds of researchers, managers, conservationists, students, and educators from the United States and Canada meet to discuss the population status, regulatory efforts and conservation priorities regarding the North Atlantic right whales. The meeting, as always, began with the release of the annual “report card,” which outlines the status of this critically endangered species.

The report card includes a best estimate of the number of whales alive and a summary of births, deaths, and research and management efforts in the last year. The living whale estimate is for the end of 2019 and does not include additional mortalities and births documented in 2020.

The best estimate for the population at the end of 2019 is just 356 whales—yet another decline in the number of right whales thought to be alive. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, these number of whales appeared to be bouncing back reaching a high of nearly 500 whales in 2010, but the last decade has been dire for the beleaguered species.

This graph estimates the number of North Atlantic right whales alive from 1990 to 2019. The dark blue line represents scientists’ best estimate for the species count, and the light blue area represents the range of uncertainty. With 95% confidence, scientists report a right whale count between 353 and 377 at the end of 2019, with a best estimate of 356. Data from the 2020 NARWC Report Card.

So far in 2020, scientists have observed only one right whale death, though the number is likely higher as COVID-19 restrictions impacted the length of field observing season for both U.S. and Canadian teams. From 2017 to 2020, there have been 31 documented right whale deaths.

“Given that the detected mortalities likely underrepresent actual mortalities by a significant amount, the state of this species is dire,” said Heather Pettis, a researcher at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and Executive Administrator for the NARWC.

Read more.