Right whale population drops to lowest estimate in nearly 20 years

BAR HARBOR — Researchers last week said the North Atlantic right whale population dropped to 336 in 2020, an 8 percent decrease from the previous year. 

The latest population figure for the critically endangered species dipped from 366 individuals in 2019 and is the lowest population estimate in nearly 20 years, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The organization has been studying right whales since the 1980s and announced the estimate at its annual meeting last week.   

“We are obviously discouraged by this estimate, but quite frankly, not surprised,” said Heather Pettis, an associate scientist in the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and the executive administrator for the consortium. “The right whale research and conservation communities know that while widespread efforts to change the trajectory of the species have been undertaken, they have not been enough.” 

The species, which migrates up and down the east coast, was generally rebounding until 2011, when the downward trend started. That prompted new regulations on Maine’s lobstermen and other fisheries. At that time, there were an estimated 481 whales, but since then the population has declined by 30 percent.  

Right whales, so-called because they were the “right” whale to hunt back in the whaling days due to their buoyancy after death, are being driven to extinction by human activities, according to the consortium.  

Entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes are the biggest threats to the species and recent research says the whales have also been affected by climate change. The New England Aquarium says its research indicates that 86 percent of identified right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.  

“There is no question that human activities are driving this species toward extinction,” said Scott Krauss, the consortium’s chairman. “There is also no question that North Atlantic right whales are an incredibly resilient species. No one engaged in right whale work believes that the species cannot recover from this. They absolutely can, if we stop killing them and allow them to allocate energy to finding food, mates and habitats that aren’t marred with deadly obstacles.” 

The new regulations passed down by the federal government on the lobster fishery are being contested in court as Maine lobstermen maintain they are not the ones hurting the whales.  

In a moderated talk with whale researchers last week, the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington went over what is known and what is still up in the air about the species, and the new rules that are threatening the state’s largest lobster port.  

One of the biggest management problems is the difficulty in knowing where the whales are. Lobstermen have called for more data to justify a potential closure of offshore fishing ground, saying they rarely see whales in the Gulf of Maine.  

More acoustic monitoring devices are being deployed into the gulf that could provide a better picture of where whales go in Maine, said Erin Summers, the director of biological monitoring and assessment division at the state Department of Marine Resources.  

“We are doing a massive push to try to get a lot of listening devices out into the Gulf of Maine to record right whale vocalizations,” she said.  

These could feed into forecasting models based on climate and oceanography being worked on at the Bigelow Laboratory in East Boothbay to predict where right whales will be and help researchers and fishermen know more about the distribution and habitat use of the species year-round. 

But conservation groups say that more immediate action is needed to save the species.  

“Despite having the tools and knowledge to halt this precipitous decline, policymakers have eschewed taking effective action for years,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “In that time, the right whale population has been decimated by fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. We are watching – and causing – the species’ extinction in real time.” 


Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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