Every year, NOAA Fisheries estimates the endangered North Atlantic right whale population abundance and shares that estimate at the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting, held this year on Oct 27-28, 2020. This year’s preliminary estimate is 366 right whales alive in January 2019. If sustained through peer review, this number would represent a decrease from the estimate reported to the Consortium last year, of 412 right whales alive in January 2018.This estimate is preliminary and will undergo further analysis and a robust peer review process before being finalized in the 2021 North Atlantic Right Whale Stock Assessment Report. That process includes the development of a draft stock assessment for internal and external peer review and discussion in early 2021, a 90-day public comment period on the draft report, resolution of the public comments, and the publication of a final report in late 2021/early 2022.
A continued population decline that began in 2011, coinciding with an oceanographic regime shift and redistribution of whales, was anticipated. However, this preliminary number is lower than expected, in part, because updated photo-identification data now indicate the previous year’s estimate was too high and the impact of the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME)—declared in 2017 and involving 42 individuals to date over the past three years—was worse than previously thought. Given that, NOAA is also preliminarily revising the original January 2018 estimate down from 412 to 383 right whales for that year.
Given the low population numbers, it is essential that we protect every North Atlantic right whale in order to avoid extinction for this endangered species. Deaths from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear in both U.S. and Canadian waters remain the two known factors in the whale’s ongoing decline. Since the population peaked at 481 in 2011, after accounting for 103 births, roughly 218 North Atlantic right whales have died of presumed anthropogenic causes, or roughly 24 whale deaths per year. The current potential biological removal number, essentially the mortality level that is considered to be sustainable, is 0.9 mortalities and serious injuries per year.
NOAA Fisheries is working with stakeholders and Canadian authorities to reduce vessel strikes and entanglement risks, the leading causes of mortality, through a series of ongoing actions. These include:
- Analyzing the effectiveness of current vessel strike reduction measures to determine modifications that may be necessary.
- Advancing Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team recommendations to reduce fishing entanglement mortality risk by 60%.
- In collaboration with commercial fishermen and other stakeholders, testing ropeless fishing gear under real world conditions to adapt existing technology in ways that could significantly reduce the amount of entangling line in the water in the future.
- Continuing to respond to and investigate stranded, entangled, and seriously injured right whales as part of the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) that was declared in 2017.