North Atlantic Right Whale and Many Species of Lemurs Now Critically Endangered

Entangled Right Whale Necropsy    Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission via NRDC

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the global authority when it comes to whether a species is at risk of extinction, yesterday added the North Atlantic Right Whale of the eastern U.S. to its list of Critically Endangered species (elevated from Endangered) that are on the brink of extinction.  The listing upgrade was driven by the fact that there were fewer than 250 mature individuals remaining as of the end of 2018, and the total population has declined by approximately 15% since 2011, mostly as a result of fishing gear entanglements.  The IUCN also “upgraded” 13 different species of lemurs to the Critically Endangered list along with 20 other lemur species at risk of imminent extinction — mostly due to deforestation and hunting in their native Madagascar, as well as the European Hamster (who knew).

Why This Matters:  These species are on the verge of going extinct not because of anything they did, but rather because of us humans.  And only we can bring them back, which is possible but grows more difficult with each whale that dies entangled or hit by a boat, and each lemur stranded because its forests are being burned to make room for farming.  Conserving 30% of the planet for nature by 2030 is more urgent than ever.

IUCN’s Red List

The most endangered species on the planet are found on the IUCN’s “Red List” – which is the result of a massive assessment the IUCN is undertaking to assess the status of 150,000 species on Earth.  So far, they have studied the populations of more than 120,000 species and found that 32,441 of them are threatened with extinction, more than a quarter of all they have looked at.  They had hoped to complete the assessment of all 150,000 species by the end of this year, but unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made that impossible.  Dr. Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group, said the new listings announced yesterday make clear that “[s]aving the fast-growing number of threatened species from extinction requires transformational change, supported by action to implement national and international agreements. The world needs to act fast to halt species’ population declines and prevent human-driven extinctions, with an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework which the upcoming IUCN Congress will help define.”

North Atlantic Right Whales

The numbers for North Atlantic Right Whales continue to go in the wrong direction.  According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), two newborn calves have been killed in the U.S. this year alone, bringing the total number of dead or presumed dead right whales to 41 since 2017. “The right whale has been heading downhill for 10 years now,” said Dr. Justin Cooke, the  IUCN Assessor for this species and scientific advisor to IFAW. “Although there has been some progress in reducing ship strikes, fatal entanglements in fishing gear have become more frequent. We’ll lose this species unless we can continue to reduce all vessel interactions with right whales and ensure that only whale-safe fishing gear is used.”  Lobster trap lines that run from the surface to the ocean floor are a major threat to whales — there are hundreds of thousands of vertical rope lines throughout the waters of New England where the whales come to feed in the summer.

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