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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 19, 2023
Right whales still declining despite protections
Adds climate change to species’ challenges

by Jack Beaudoin

In its latest five-year review, the National Marine Fisheries Service says existing efforts to protect North Atlantic right whales have proven inadequate and that the population continues to decline.

“The North Atlantic right whale faces continued threat of human caused mortality due to lethal interactions with commercial fisheries and vessel traffic,” concludes the review, released December 27, 2022. “There is also uncertainty regarding the effect of long-term sublethal entanglements, emerging environmental stressors including climate change, and the compounding effects of multiple continuous stressors that may be limiting North Atlantic right whale calving and recovery.”

Right whale protections have had a significant impact on the Maine lobster industry because of the danger that gear entanglement poses for the highly mobile mammals. While the review says that “mortalities and serious injuries of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. gear and first seen in U.S. waters” continue to contribute to the species’ decline and inability to recover, Maine lobstermen have argued that there have been no confirmed entanglements in Maine gear since 2004.

In 2022, a U.S. District judge decided that NMFS was not doing enough to prevent the extinction of right whales and ordered the agency to adopt new, stricter rules on the lobster fishery. Maine’s congressional delegation managed to pass federal legislation that delays new whale rules for six years and allocates about $55 million to develop ropeless fishing gear, among other things.

That money will also pay for research to figure out where, when and if the endangered North Atlantic right whale is in the Gulf of Maine. The NMFS five-year review noted that climate change may be moving whales—and their zooplankton diet (including C. finmarchicus, a copepod species)—out of the Gulf of Maine.

Scientists found “that the Gulf of Maine habitat would continue to decline in suitability until 2050 under a range of climate change scenarios,” the review says. “Similarly, models of future copepod density in the Gulf of Maine have predicted declines of up to 50 percent under high greenhouse gas emission scenarios by 2080-2100…It is clear that climate change does and will continue to have an impact on the availability, supply, aggregation, and distribution of C. finmarchicus, and North Atlantic right whale abundance.”

Recommendations for the future

Under section 4(c)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), NMFS is required to conduct a review of all endangered and threatened species at least once every five years to assess whether the current listing status remains accurate. The previous review was issued in 2017. Northern right whales have been listed as endangered since the ESA was passed in 1973.

Nearly 50 years after the original determination, agency officials “conclude that no change to the listing status is warranted at this time” and thus North Atlantic right whales will remain officially “endangered.”

An October 2022 report card released by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) estimated that by the end of 2021, only 340 North Atlantic right whales remained alive. While only 15 new calves were born in 2022—equaling the average number of annual births recorded over the last three decades—the NMFS review reported no known mortalities in 2022.

The review concludes with 16 recommendations for future actions, including improved monitoring of the right whale population, better tagging solutions to track individual whales, more study of the impacts of climate on migratory and feeding patterns and “research and implement gear modifications that reduce impacts of fishing gear on North Atlantic right whales and inform management for the development of more finely scaled commercial fisheries regulations.”