A North Atlantic right whale swims alongside dolphins in the ocean

Only 336 North Atlantic right whales are left in the world. Image © Shutterstock / Love Lego

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Numbers of North Atlantic right whales fall by almost 10%

Populations of the North Atlantic right whale fell by almost 10% in 2020, leaving only a few hundred of the animals surviving.  

The animals are being caught in lines and struck by boats, with conservationists calling for greater efforts to save the Critically Endangered species.

Efforts to save one of the world's most endangered species of whale have suffered a blow as the population continues to decline.  

Populations of the Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whale are estimated to have fallen by 30 individuals since 2019, leaving only around 336 of the animals left in the world. Conservation group The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium has blamed the fall on human impacts, specifically entanglement with fishing equipment and collisions with ships. 

The chair of the consortium, Dr Scott Kraus, said that while the estimates were sad, there was still hope for the species. 

'There is no question that human activities are driving this species toward extinction,' he said. '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.' 

Richard Sabin, the Principal Curator of Mammals at the Museum and who was not involved with the study, says, 'The whales are hugely under threat, and I'm hoping this isn't going to be the case, but within the next couple of decades we may be looking at the extinction of a of a large whale species, which would be a terrible thing to happen.' 

A whaler stands in front of a caught whale

Whaling decimated populations of North Atlantic right whales for centuries. Image © National Library of Norway, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wrongs don't make a right

The North Atlantic right whale is a large whale which skims the surface waters of the ocean for small invertebrate prey such as krill. They feed using large sheets of keratin, the substance which makes up fingernails, to filter their food from large amounts of water. 

This habit of swimming near the surface, however, made them vulnerable to human hunters. Some suggest that their common name comes from them being the 'right' whale to hunt, as they float to the surface after death.

The whales are known to have been hunted from at least 1059 in the Bay of Biscay, although they would have likely been targeted by earlier groups such as the Vikings. Over time, the estimated population of 21,000 whales has been reduced to just a few hundred. 

'Researchers generally tend to agree that there are now two - possibly three - distinct breeding populations or subpopulations of the North Atlantic right whale,' Richard says. 'There is the North East subpopulation, which is probably functionally extinct, and the central Atlantic population, which may exist but more work is needed to verify that.  

'Then there's the North West population, which is the population that's under focus because that's where all of the work is being done in terms of trying to monitor and conserve these animals.' 

Since 1986, whaling of all species, including the North Atlantic right whale, has effectively been banned by the International Whaling Commission, though a few countries such as Japan, Norway and Iceland have continued the practice. In the same year, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium was established to spearhead efforts to help protect the species. 

A ghost net floating under the ocean's surface

Ghost nets can stunt the growth of whales and their offspring after becoming detached from fishing vessels. Image © Shutterstock / Aqua Images

Making the right choice

Each year, the consortium releases its best estimate if the number of North Atlantic right whales left. Starting from under 300, the population had previously been growing annually until 2011, when there were thought to be around 481 whales. 

Since then, however, the population has been undergoing a sharp decline. It led to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changing the species' conservation status from Endangered to Critically Endangered.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that over 85% of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, expending large amounts of energy in escaping. A study published earlier this year found that entanglements stunt whale growth, and that of their offspring, which has seen their body length decrease over the past four decades. 

'One of the things that can't be underestimated is even if an animal survives an interaction with a large vessel or an entanglement episode, the whales become stressed,' Richard says.  

'Over the past five years, I've been looking at levels of chemical stress signals contained in the earwax of whales as a result of events like this. Stress affects a whole range of behaviours, and it is an important factor which certainly needs more study.  

'One of the things that we've been fortunate enough to be able to provide with our collections at the NHM is information on where these hormones concentrate to allow us to see how they have changed over time.' 

These existing issues are also thought to be being exacerbated by climate change, with changes in the distribution of the whales' prey driving them into waters where fisheries operate more intensively. 

While the outlook is currently bleak, conservationists are confident that there is cause for optimism. Only two whales are known to have died during 2021, while 18 mothers have been observed swimming with their calves. 

Research is ongoing into the best ways for ships to avoid colliding with whales, with recommendations for dedicated lookouts and better data sharing on the animals' location between vessels. New technologies could also reduce entanglement, with nets and traps that rise to the surface at the touch of a button eliminating the need for ropes dangling down from buoys. 

'There's an awful lot that's being done, but ultimately it's not just about the efforts of the scientists and the conservation groups,' says Richard. 'It's about government and it's about business. Science provides data about what's going on in the marine environment and offers up the data in the hope that they can help influence the necessary conservation measures. 

'Governments need to listen to science and take heed of the data, whether that's setting up conservation zones, helping to clear the oceans of ghost nets or diverting shipping lanes around known areas of whale activity where possible. 

'We all have a role to play, but ultimately it's governments that implement policy.'