These are dire times for the North Atlantic right whale.
A record number of the whales -- 17 -- died due to ship strikes or gear entanglements last year. Meanwhile, scientists who have been tracking the mammals noted the birth of a mere five calves over the same period. The troubling trend does not bode well for the species.
“The story is just a simple one of arithmetic,” Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the right whale ecology program at the Center for Coast Studies, told Public Radio International. “If you have fewer births and higher mortalities, extinction is around the corner.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Right whales, docile creatures that grow to about 50 feet long and about 70 tons, at one time seemed to be one of the conservation movement’s greatest success stories. The creatures -- hunted nearly to extinction in the whaling era -- saw their numbers grow from fewer than 250 to the current estimate of 450 after two decades of conservation efforts on the part of the federal government and the fishing and shipping industries.
The measures that worked before, however, are no longer sufficient to keep the species healthy. This is in large part due to the fractured nature of their habitat, which runs from the southeastern United States to Nova Scotia.
While lobstermen in Massachusetts have adapted their work habits and changed their gear to reduce the number of whale entanglements, the snow crab industry in New Brunswick, Canada, has not. The United States has altered shipping lanes to reduce the number of whale strikes. But as climate change changes the ocean, it also changes whales’ migration patterns, and the government of Canada has yet to adequately address shipping there.
Closer to home, the Conservation Law Foundation has sued the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration for not doing enough to protect the mammals. NOAA, however, is closing some areas off Cape Cod to commercial fishing and lobstering and is pushing for more research into fishing gear that would cut down on whale entanglements.
If it sounds like a hodgepodge of approaches, that’s because it is. It’s long past time for these groups to put aside their competing interests and work together on a cohesive plan to address the crisis, one that builds on the cooperation of two countries and several industries.
Humans nearly killed off the right whale in the early 1900s. We are getting perilously close to finishing the job today.