Right whale population lower than previously thought

Right Whales

FILE – In this April 10, 2008 file photo, a ballet of three North Atlantic right whale tails break the surface off Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay. Marine conservation groups say the endangered North Atlantic right whale is having such a bad year for accidental deaths in 2017 that all the mortality could challenge […]

BOSTON (State House News Service) – There are actually fewer North Atlantic right whales left in the world than federal monitors had previously thought and perhaps as few as 356 left alive, according to reports this week.

An official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently sent an email to a whale-related task force that revised the 2018 preliminary population estimate of 412 right whales downward to 383, the Gloucester Times and others reported.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said that known right whale deaths since 2018 would lower the current right whale population to 356 of the endangered mammals.

“The new estimates that only about 360 North Atlantic right whales remain underscores the need for immediate action to protect this critically endangered species. The time to act is now. We know that North Atlantic right whales are getting entangled in fishing gear and hit by vessels. We must reduce the number of fishing lines in the water and require vessels to slow down when right whales are present,” Whitney Webber, campaign director of ocean conservation group Oceana, said.

Since late August, NOAA has been asking mariners to either go slow or find a route around an area south of Nantucket where groups of right whales have recently been spotted as the endangered mammals migrate. The “dynamic management area” south of Nantucket remains in place at least through November 3. NOAA said whales were spotted in the area as recently as October 18.

Right whales got their name, NOAA said, “from being the ‘right’ whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed.” Nantucket and New Bedford thrived as whaling ports in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the expeditions that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution severely depleted whale populations and right whales “have never recovered to pre-whaling numbers,” NOAA said.

Northern right whales have been listed as endangered since 1970. Protection of the endangered marine mammals has factored into the introduction of the offshore wind industry in Massachusetts and the Northeast.

Vineyard Wind, which expects to launch the nation’s first full-scale offshore wind farm, has an agreement with conservation groups to protect right whales from harm associated with wind turbine construction and operation.

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