A new population estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the already endangered population of North Atlantic right whales declined about 11 percent in 2018, even more than originally believed.

The estimated population dropped from 412 right whales in January 2018 to 366 in January 2019. The numbers, which should be finalized in late 2021 or early 2022, were released Monday ahead of the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

The North Atlantic right whale – one of the world’s most endangered large whale species – has been in decline since 2011. However, the numbers reported Monday represent a larger than anticipated loss, according to an email from NOAA Fisheries to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a group that is helping develop plans to mitigate fishing gear’s risk to marine mammals.

In part, the lower-than-expected numbers are because an ongoing “unusual mortality event,” which started in 2017 and has killed 42 whales since then, has been worse than previously thought, according to the email. As a result, NOAA has revised the original January 2018 estimate down from 412 whales to 388.

The agency said the low population numbers mean it is essential to protect every right whale to avoid extinction. Deaths from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear in both U.S. and Canadian waters remain the two known factors in the ongoing decline.

Since the population peaked at 481 whales in 2011, there have been 103 births, but roughly 218 whales have died, presumably because of human activity – a rate of 24 deaths per year. There are fewer than 94 breeding females remaining.


Conservation groups Monday reacted with alarm and said there is no time to waste in trying to save the endangered whale.

“We were already at a point where right whales are on life support for all intents and purposes,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization. “To find out the numbers were much worse than we thought and much worse for much longer than we thought, it puts the insane death rates we’ve been seeing into even worse perspective.”

Davenport said climate change and the warming Gulf of Maine have exacerbated problems facing right whales. Whereas whales used to move in predictable patterns that made it easier to regulate waters and put protections in place, climate change has brought whales into different areas than expected as they search for food. “It’s the same cause of death, just in different places,” she said.

In a statement Monday, Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Erica Fuller called the population estimates devastating.

“The outlook is grim if we do not act today,” Fuller said. “We know human activities are decimating this population, what will it take for federal fishery managers to finally take action to protect these magnificent animals?”

The foundation has been pushing for years for stronger protections to help the right whale population recover. In August, a judge ruled that federal fishery managers have until May 2021 to issue new rules to protect the whales from entanglement in fishing gear, the result of a lawsuit brought by the foundation and other environmental and animals rights groups.


The foundation and its partners have also advocated for mandatory speed limits to help protect the whales from ship strikes, according to a news release.

NOAA Fisheries is working with stakeholders and Canadian authorities to reduce vessel strikes and entanglement risks through a series of ongoing actions, including analyzing the effectiveness of current vessel strike-reduction measures, working with commercial fishermen to test ropeless fishing gear and reduce the amount of entangling lines in the water, and continuing to respond to and investigate stranded, entangled and seriously injured right whales.

Davenport said both the U.S. and Canada need to work quickly to put more protections in place.

“It’s clear there are very few grains of sand at the top of the hour glass and we have to flip it and flip it now,” she said.

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