Experts Hopeful for Right Whale Rebound, Though New Challenges Ahead

North Atlantic right whale “Snow Cone” (Catalog #3560) spotted south of Nantucket on Sept. 21, 2022, dragging heavy fishing gear and in poor health. CREDIT: New England Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #25739

HYANNIS – The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium recently issued its yearly population estimate for the species, and while the whales are still critically endangered, experts said they are still hopeful. 

Dr. Sarah Sharp, veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that while about 340 whales remain, there was a time when the population was even lower.

“Back in the early 2000’s and 1990’s, this population got fairly small. Less than 200 individuals. Since then, it has started to increase, until about 2010 where that population trajectory inflected and started heading downward,” Sharp said.

She added that the whales’ dwindling numbers—and knowledge that they have bounced back from worse—highlights the need for more proactive protection efforts like investment in rope-less fishing gear to reduce entanglements.

However, Sharp did say that new challenges have emerged since the species’ rebound at the turn of the century. Of particular concern is the lack of no new mothers among the pollution. 

“More severe effects of climate change, shifting prey distribution, more ocean noise, thicker lines being used for our fishing gear, larger vessels going faster, things like that. We know that their landscape has essentially changed,” said Sharp.

“So will they be able to recover as they had been able to do previously? I think there is a bit of a question mark there, but we know that they are a resilient population. We know that they have come back from previous low numbers before. So we do have hope,” said Sharp.

She added that transitioning the fishing industry towards ropeless gear would be the biggest benefit to the whales, which consumers may be able to support soon as markets begin carrying ropeless-caught lobster and other seafood.

New regulations are also under consideration by NOAA Fisheries to help protect the whales, including speed restrictions on vessel less than 65 feet and making temporary speed reduction zones mandatory.

The regulations are out for public comment. 

About Grady Culhane

Grady Culhane is a Cape Cod native from Eastham. He studied media communications at Cape Cod Community College and joined the News Center in 2019.
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