Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation, today launched a campaign in the U.S. and Canada to help save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction. In a new report, Oceana details the dire reality facing North Atlantic right whales, highlighting their two greatest threats — entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships. Since 2017, 28 North Atlantic right whales have been confirmed dead in U.S. and Canadian waters and only around 400 animals remain. Scientists estimate that even a single human-caused right whale death a year threatens the species’ chances of recovery.
“If we don’t act fast, we could see a large whale species go extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in centuries,” said Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer at Oceana. “The U.S. and Canadian governments must both intervene immediately to get this species back on a recovery path. Even a single death by ship strike or entanglement in a given year is too much. Speed and convenience cannot be prioritized over the survival of this iconic species.”
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.
“If this trend continues, extinction is inevitable,” said Josh Laughren, executive director at Oceana Canada, which today also released a companion report focused on strategies to prevent North Atlantic right whale deaths in Canadian waters. “The recent deaths of eight right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence make it clear that more needs to be done to protect a species being driven to extinction.”
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder and cod is one of two leading causes of right whale injury and death. Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 right whales each year, and about 83% of all right whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around right whales’ mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slows them down, making it difficult to swim, reproduce and feed, and can cause drowning. 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.
“North Atlantic right whales have been swimming along extinction’s cliff for nearly a hundred years, but events over the last several years might push them over the edge if we don’t act now,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana in the United States. “A jungle of roughly one million fishing lines sprawls across right whale migration routes and feeding areas in the U.S. and Canada. We know right whales are dying from fishing gear entanglements and must find a way to reduce the number of lines in the water.”
Collisions with ships are the other leading cause of right whale deaths. Right whales are slow, swimming around six miles (9.7 km) per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark-skinned 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 ship-related collisions with right whales. At normal operating speeds, ships cannot maneuver to avoid them, and right whales 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. Emerging threats like seismic airgun blasting, a process used to search for oil and gas deep below the seafloor that creates one of the loudest human-made sounds in the ocean, put the species at even greater risk.
“Of the eight dead right whales found in Canada this June and July, three were determined to have died from ship strikes,” said Kim Elmslie, campaign director at Oceana Canada. “Current measures are not enough to protect right whales. Speed restriction zones must be expanded, maintained and strictly enforced.”
The U.S. and Canadian governments must work together to prevent these ocean giants from becoming extinct. Oceana is urgently calling for the following actions to be taken by the U.S. and Canadian governments:
- Reduce the amount of vertical lines used in fixed gear fisheries in U.S. and Canadian Atlantic waters.
- Implement effective fisheries closures that remove threats to right whales when they are present.
- Modify fishing gear and practices to reduce the likelihood and severity of entanglements.
- Enhance fisheries monitoring and require public tracking of fishing vessels.
- Enact seasonal speed restrictions in areas where right whales are known to frequent and implement short-term restrictions in additional areas when they are detected.
- Provide long-term funding and capacity building for research, monitoring and risk reduction.
- Expand and strengthen response networks comprising researchers, environmental organizations, industry groups and stakeholders, and government decision makers to help manage the crisis and start rebuilding the species.
To access Oceana’s full report, fact sheet and other materials, visit oceana.org/RightWhaletoSave.