Coming at the end of a devastating summer for right whales, the North Atlantic Right Whale Five-Year Review and its list of recommended actions to promote right whale recovery is particularly timely.
At least 11 dead endangered North Atlantic right whales were found floating in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. These deaths account for nearly 3% of the total population. In addition, there were four confirmed live right whale entanglements, two of which were disentangled. In U.S. waters, at least one right whale has died from a ship strike and two other carcasses were spotted this year. These recent mortalities and entanglements, particularly the high numbers in Canada, have experts in both countries concerned for the future of this species. These documented deaths represent a minimum; an updated estimate of population size will provide a clear understanding of the number of whales that died in 2017.
In July 2016, NMFS initiated this Review, as it does every five years, to make sure that species are accurately listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The Five-Year Review is now complete and provides updates on the right whale population in U.S. waters.
The Five-Year Review recommends, not surprisingly, that North Atlantic right whales continue to be listed as endangered, and confirms that they are experiencing a low rate of reproduction; longer calving intervals; declining population abundance; continued mortality from vessel and fishing gear interactions; changes in prey availability, and increased transboundary movement and risk.
As part of the Five-Year Review, NOAA recommends actions to help the species recover. The actions highlighted in the Five-Year Review report are based on the latest scientific information and include steps to increase our understanding of the threats facing North Atlantic right whales and ways to address them.
Some of the recommendations are already underway:
- Designating a dedicated Right Whale Recovery Coordinator in the Greater Atlantic Region to focus efforts on recovery. Diane Borggaard, a biologist with 20 years of experience in species recovery, is taking on this role.
- Convening a new Greater Atlantic Region North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Team, a group of experts in whale research and management that will coordinate closely with the Southeast Region’s Implementation Team. NOAA FISHERIES RECOMMENDS ACTIONS TO HELP RIGHT WHALES NOAA will develop the team’s mission and begin recruiting members soon.
- Collaborating with U.S./Canadian transboundary working group to reduce ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, two of the largest human caused threats to right whales. NOAA has held several meetings with its counterparts at Fisheries and Oceans Canada to discuss gear modifications, gear markings, and ship speed regulations.
- Convening a bilateral work group with Canada to focus on addressing the science and management gaps that are impeding the recovery of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters. The group’s first meeting was held on Monday, September 11, 2017.
- Reinitiate its fisheries Biological Opinions under the Endangered Species Act in light of new information on right whale biology that may reveal effects of the fisheries that may not have been previously considered in the original Biological Opinions.
In addition, the report also recommends these specific actions:
- Developing a strategy for understanding the energetic stressors on right whales including the effect of chronic, sublethal entanglement on overall and reproductive health and the effects of changes in environmental conditions and prey availability
- 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 that can be used to understand right whale presence in near real time.
- Evaluating the effectiveness of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the Ship Speed Rule to determine whether it may be necessary to modify or extend these protections for right whales.
- Reviewing the effects of commercial fishing operations on right whales.
Road to recovery
We know little about the pre-whaling population of North Atlantic right whales, but researchers believe that there were more than 1,000 whales, and possibly near 20,000. Today, our most recent estimate is about 458 whales, which is up from around 270 in 1990, but has shown a consistent decline since the 2010 estimate of 483. With so few animals in the population, each one is important to the recovery of the species.
In its North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan, NOAA identifies the most significant need as reducing or eliminating deaths and injuries from human activities, namely shipping and commercial fishing operations. The second priority is to get better data on their population trends, distribution, and health, as well as on their habitat needs and uses. The third priority is to study the other potential threats, such as habitat degradation, noise, contaminants, and climate and ecosystem change, and determine ways to address them.
The good news is that the population has increased since NOAA began its efforts. The Ship Strike Reduction program, Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, and Large Whale Disentanglement Program have helped reduce serious injuries and mortalities.
However, this most recent decline and the large number of deaths in 2017 are a serious concern, and reminds us that we still have a long way to go to bring this population back to the point at which it is considered recovered.
Why worry about whales?
Whales are important to our ecosystems and our economy. They are essential parts of the ocean food web, as both predators—feeding on fish and invertebrates—and prey—eaten by sharks and sometimes other whales. When whales die, their carcasses sink, taking carbon with them and providing food for dozens of scavengers. In addition, their fecal matter provides nitrogen-rich food for some of the primary producers in the oceans.
Whales are also indicators of the health of our oceans. An increase or decline of their populations can be an indication of changes in their habitats–changes that may affect the survival of other marine life, and may affect human populations as well. From whales, we continue to discover and develop many things, including sonar, wind turbine blade design, and possibly synthetic blood. Today, whales and other marine mammals are central to tourism around the world, providing a boon to local economies, including ours here in the MidAtlantic and New England.