New Estimate Finds North Atlantic Right Whale Population Dwindling, Reaching New Lows - Oceana USA

New Estimate Finds North Atlantic Right Whale Population Dwindling, Reaching New Lows

Press Release Date: October 25, 2021

Location: Washington/Ottawa


Megan Jordan | email: | tel: 202.868.4061

A new estimate from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, released today, finds that the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population has dropped 8%, from 366 in 2019 to 336 in 2020. This latest estimate comes ahead of the Consortium’s annual meeting and confirms the dire situation facing North Atlantic right whales. Also today, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published a new draft Stock Assessment Report that shows the number of North Atlantic right whales that can die in a year in order to support the species’ recovery (the Potential Biological Removal level) has dropped to 0.7. In addition, the estimated annual rate of North Atlantic right whale mortality between 2014 and 2018 was 27.4 whales — up from 18.6 in the previous assessment. With the release of these new estimates, Oceana is urgently calling on NMFS, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Transport Canada to take immediate action to save these whales from extinction.

Below are statements from Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana in the United States, and Kim Elmslie, campaign director at Oceana Canada: 

“The new population and mortality estimates for North Atlantic right whales are upsetting and alarming. Losing nearly 10% of a critically endangered species in one year is drastic and should be a wake-up call that the situation facing these whales is more dire and urgent than ever before. There’s zero time to waste — political finger-pointing, process delays, and industry opposition are decimating North Atlantic right whales. This downward trajectory must be reversed if the species is to survive another generation. Oceana calls on the U.S.  government to act now before these whales disappear from our coasts forever,” said Whitney Webber.

“We must do everything we can to save this fragile population from extinction. Today’s devastating new population estimate underscores just how critical it is that Canada continues to create strong, mandatory measures to protect North Atlantic right whales. It is also time to create a more permanent management regime that is transparent to all stakeholders with a commitment to long-term funding for science, monitoring and enforcement. We can and must change the fate of these whales,” said Kim Elmslie.

North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has reversed.  
Collisions with vessels are one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. They are slow, swimming around 6 miles (or 9.5 kilometres) per hour, and usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a vessel is a major factor in vessel-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At high speeds, vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and they swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers.  
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and other fisheries, is the other leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Around one-quarter of the population is entangled in fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada each year, and about 85% of whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around their mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slow them down; make it difficult to swim, reproduce, and feed; and can cause death. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they have severed fins and tails, and cut into bone.  

To learn more about Oceana’s binational campaign to save North Atlantic right whales, click here.