NOAA Extends Protections for Endangered Right Whales 

August 25: NOAA declares deaths of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. and Canada an Unusual Mortality Event | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo: NOAA

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

NOAA announced this week that it is extending its ship speed protections for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale until Nov. 15 in waters off of southern New England and east of Long Island, New York.  According to the latest population estimate, there are even fewer endangered North Atlantic right whales than previously thought. The number of right whales is now estimated at only 366 — down from 412 — with only 94 females able to give birth. As WBUR reported, Right Whales have “struggled with poor reproduction and high mortality over the last decade.”  Over 200 of them have died over the past decade, all because of humans. The primary culprits? Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.  

Why this Matters: Earlier this year, even before the updated population count, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List downlisted North Atlantic Right Whales to “critically endangered,” just one step away from extinction. Even at this critical point, it’s possible for Right Whales to recover, but it requires more protections to be implemented as quickly as possible.  But this action is only a temporary fix — more permanent protections are needed and time is wasting as the Trump administration shirks its duty to protect them.

Why Are Its Numbers Declining? 

Right now, ship speed restrictions are only mandatory for vessels 65 feet and longer. There are also seasonal restrictions along the East Coast, from New England down to the whales’ calving groups off the coast of Florida and Georgia. Expanding the areas and times with mandatory restrictions protections is even more important because the climate crisis is shifting right whales’ migration patterns, making it harder to predict exactly where they will be. Warmer waters are changing the locations of the plankton they feed on; this was the first year in the past 40 that not a single right whale was spotted in Canada’s Bay of Fundy

Another protective measure is shifting to ropeless fishing. Right now, fishing for lobster or snow crab means using a trap or pot connected to a surface buoy by a thick, heavy rope. Whales get entangled in that rope, which can dig into their bodies and get trapped in their baleen, leading to injuries, starvation, and death. Ropeless fishing eliminates that threat. 

To Go Deeper:  Check out the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Catalog. Every right whale alive today is cataloged there, as are whales that have died over the years. Many whales have names, like Fermata or Quasimodo. 

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