NOTE: This story was updated on October 24, 2017, to reflect news of a 16th right whale death. 

After an unprecedented year with 15 North Atlantic right whale deaths on record, more than 300 right whale researchers, policymakers, government officials, and industry members from across the United States and Canada gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, over the weekend for the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC).

With scientists from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium presenting key talks, the conference updated the scientific community about the right whale population, the impacts of entanglement and vessel strikes, and the recent mortality crisis.

Every year, NARWC, led by Anderson Cabot Center researchers, releases its annual right whale “Report Card,” which provides updates on the status of the cataloged population, mortalities, and entanglement events. This year’s results were dire, with population estimates at only 451 right whales.

An unprecedented 15 North Atlantic right whale mortalities were documented in 2017, representing nearly 3% of the population. This, coupled with the decline in reproductive output by 40% since 2010, threatens the very survival of this species.
- NARWC Right Whale Report Card 2017

On October 23, the day after the NAWRC conference, scientists made a sad announcement: a dead right whale had washed up on the coast of Cape Cod, bringing the year’s death toll to 16.

North Atlantic right whale mortalities in the U.S. and Canada by year.
North Atlantic right whale mortalities in the U.S. and Canada by year.

Between November 2016 and mid-October 2017, an unprecedented 15 right whale mortalities were documented in Canadian (12) and U.S. (3) waters. Of those 15 deaths, scientists determined five were a result of blunt force trauma from vessel strikes, one died due to chronic entanglement, and one from probable entanglement. The cause of death of the eight other whales could not be determined.  The cause of death for the 16th whale, found on October 23, has yet to be determined. 

“Timely and effective efforts to reduce both entanglement and vessel strike mortalities must be a priority for both the U.S. and Canada if this species is to survive,” according to the annual report card.

In addition to updating the scientific community about the status of the population, this year’s meeting sought  to assemble a small, international working group that can help develop and promote strategies to better protect right whales.

Researchers stand around carcass on sand
New England Aquarium scientist Kathleen Hunt inspects a deep propeller cut on the lower jaw and a nearly severed flipper in 2016. Photo: Marilyn Marx, New England Aquarium.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) completed its five-year review of the North Atlantic right whale this month. The review is to ensure that species are accurately listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. GARFO continued to list the North Atlantic right whale as endangered and recommended a series of actions to help the species recover, including collaborating across the U.S. and Canada to reduce ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, creating a new Greater Atlantic Region North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Team, and connecting with Canadian officials to discuss gear modifications, gear markings, and ship speed regulations.

“With so few animals in the population, each one is important to the recovery of the species,” stated the GARFO announcement.

Right whale #2614 accompanied by her calf
Right whale #2614 accompanied by her calf | Photo taken by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), taken under NOAA research permit #15488.

Scientists at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life are an integral part of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. For more than 40 years, the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Team has been leading research and advocacy issues 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.

Together, we are working to ensure the long-term conservation and recovery of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.