Just 409 whales.

That’s what scientists believe remains of the iconic North Atlantic right whales.

Right whales were once called the “right whales to hunt” because they swam close to shore, produced high yields of whale oil and baleen, and—thanks to their thick blubber—floated when killed.

Rather than whalers and their spears, the species now faces other threats from humans—primarily ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, coupled with impacts from climate change and shifting distribution of prey. The number of these endangered whales has been in decline since 2010.

In November, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) held its annual conference in Portland, ME. More than 300 researchers, managers, conservationists, students, and educators gathered to hear updates on the status of the species, management efforts in both the United States and Canada, new research initiatives, and to discuss necessary next steps in moving forward conservation priorities for these whales.

The meeting began with the much-anticipated release of the annual “report card” on the status of this endangered species. The report card includes an estimate of the number of whales alive and a summary of births, deaths, and research and management efforts in the last year. The living whale estimate is for the end of 2018 and does not include additional mortalities and births documented in 2019.

The best estimate for the species at the end of 2018 is 409 whales, representing yet another decline in the number of right whales thought to be alive. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the species appeared to be bouncing back, reaching a high of nearly 500 whales in 2010. But the last few years, including 2019, have been dire for the beleaguered species.

graph of North Atlantic right whale yearly population

This graph estimates the number of North Atlantic right whales alive from 1990 to 2018. The dark blue line represents scientists’ best estimate for the species count, and the light blue area represents the range of uncertainty. With 95% confidence, scientists report a right whale count between 399 and 430 at the end of 2018, with a best estimate of 409. Data from the 2019 NARWC Report Card.

In 2019 alone, 10 right whale deaths were detected, bringing the total number of mortalities in the last three years to 30. During the same period, only 12 calves were born. During the presentation of the report card, Heather Pettis, a researcher at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and Executive Administrator for the NARWC, reiterated that the 10 mortalities in 2019 represent the detected mortalities, a number that is known to be significantly less than the actual number of right whales that die each year.

“Given that the detected mortalities likely underrepresent actual mortalities by a significant amount, the state of this species is dire,” said Pettis.

graph of detected North Atlantic right whale mortalities

Right whales have a range from the east coast of Florida in the United States to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. Mortalities are reported either in U.S. waters (dark blue) or Canadian waters (red). Data from the 2019 NARWC Report Card and NOAA Fisheries.

Anthropogenic (human-caused) factors, including entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes, have been implicated in 13 of the 30 most recent deaths. The other 17 have an undetermined cause of death as most were either not retrieved or were too decomposed for assessment. A recent publication documented that entanglement or vessel strikes were implicated in all right whale mortalities between 2003 and 2018 for which scientists could determine a cause of death.

“Anthropogenic-related deaths, which management measures have clearly not reduced, are increasing the threat to the survival of this species,” according to the report card.

An entangled whale doesn’t die instantly. Instead, entanglements in fishing gear—mostly the heavy ropes and traps of snow crab and lobster gear—reduce the survival probability for whales by exhausting and slowly starving them. Many whales, sometimes with the help of disentanglement teams, manage to shed their gear, but the injuries they sustain can lead to poor health and reduced reproduction well after the initial interaction. A total of 86 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once.

North Atlantic right whale #4601
Gully (#4601) was first seen last year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with entanglement wounds that continue to heal. (Photo: Kelsey Howe, New England Aquarium/Canadian Whale Institute)

Right Whale Calves

There were seven calves born in 2019, a welcome sight after no births in 2018. Yet scientists estimate that only 8% of the 87 “available” females gave birth. The report card defines available females as females who have given birth to at least one previous calf, were presumed to be alive, and who had not given birth in the last two years.

graph of right whale calves compared to females available to give birth

Number of calves born (light blue) compared to known reproductive females available to calve (dark blue). The orange line is the percentage of females available to calve that gave birth from 2009 to 2019. Data from the 2019 NARWC Report Card.

During the past three years, the percentage of available females in the species that gave birth was below 8% annually and an average of 5% across the three years. Compare that to the previous eight years, when the average number of available females giving birth was 27.9%, and something becomes very clear: there are fewer right whales giving birth.

Right whale births are simply not keeping up with mortalities

One potential reason is ongoing stress from previous entanglement, said Amy Knowlton, Anderson Cabot Center Senior Scientist. She has studied the effects of severe entanglement on the females in this species and found that within three years of a severe entanglement, only about 33 percent of females survive. Across the entire species, moderate and severe injuries from entanglements are on the rise.

What are we doing to help?

Since 2004, the Right Whale Consortium’s annual report has provided an assessment of where the situation stands for right whales, and, perhaps most importantly, recommendations for the future.

The report card called ongoing discussions about reducing human-impacts on the right whales in both Canadian and U.S. waters “encouraging,” but went on to say that “immediate, broad-based mitigation strategies that result in significant risk reduction” throughout the species’ range “must be a priority if the species is to survive.”

Over the last several years, the distribution of right whales and their patterns of habitat use have been shifting, likely due to their prey shifting in response to climate change. Management changes as a result of these distribution shifts must be put forward if we hope to save the right whales from extinction.

The role of the Anderson Cabot Center

The Anderson Cabot Center is a critical component of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which is led by Heather Pettis of the New England Aquarium. For nearly 40 years, the Aquarium’s Right Whale Team has been leading research on and advocacy for the species. The team conducts vital work, including cataloging right whales in its extensive DIGITS database, tracking pregnancies and birth rates, investigating fishing gear adaptations to prevent entanglements, working to reroute shipping lanes to prevent deadly vessel strikes, and conducting groundbreaking stress hormone research in whales.

An important note: This is a preliminary release of the report card. Any additional data through the end of 2019 will be updated and a final 2019 Report Card will be released in January 2020.