Scientists Worry about Right Whales

Scientists are worried that the right whale may soon become extinct. There were seventeen confirmed right whale deaths in 2017 and only five recorded births. Their concern should be shared by all of us as whales are important to our ecosystem and our economy.

Whales are part of the ocean food chain, feeding on fish and invertebrates and eaten by sharks and other whales. Their fecal matter provides nitrogen rich food for some of the primary producers in the ocean. When a whale dies its carcass sinks, taking carbon with them and providing food for scavengers. Whales are also central to tourism in the U.S. especially in the Mid-Atlantic and New England areas. They are also very important to scientific research, as an example they have been essential to the discovery and development of things like sonar, wind turbine blade design and possibly synthetic blood.

This whale received its name from whalers in the 1800s because they thought it was the right whale to hunt. The whale was easy to kill and swam slowly and once dead it floated making it easier to pull the whales onto ships.

The right whale is a baleen whale, meaning it has no teeth but uses baleen plates to strain its prey. They can weigh up to about 200,000 pounds and can grow to be about 60 feet at its longest. The North Atlantic right whale lives near the coasts. They range from Canada, south to the southeastern United States. Pregnant females can be found in winter and spring off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, where they generally give birth to one live calf every three to five years. The gestation period is one year. It is believed they live about fifty years.

Some of the threats to the whales that have contributed to their dwindling numbers include ship collisions, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat degradation, contaminants, climate and ecosystem change, disturbance from whale watching activities and noise.

The right whale was first listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in June 1970. In 1991, the Northern Right Whale Recovery Plan was approved. It identified known and potential factors affecting the right whale and recommended actions to reduce or eliminate impacts to the species. In 2005, a revised recovery plan was published. The most recent Five Year Review was released in 2017. Some of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommendations were:

• Collaborating with U.S./Canadian transboundary working group to reduce ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements
• Develop a strategy for understanding the energetic stressors on right whales
• Developing a long-term, cross-regional plan for monitoring right whale population trends and habitat use.
• Prioritizing funding for a combination of acoustic, aerial and shipboard surveys of right whales in real time
• Evaluating the effectiveness of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the Ship Speed Rule
• Reviewing the effects of commercial fishing operations on right whales.

While NOAA says their efforts to protect the whales such as the Ship Strike Reduction program, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, and their Large Whale Disentanglement Program, have helped reduced serious injuries and mortalities this most recent decline in births and large number of deaths in 2017 are a serious concern. They say the current Northern Atlantic right whales population is only about 450. The Agency fears the species could face extinction.

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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