When Extinction is Simply Not an Option

Image: National Geographic

by CT Harry, Marine Campaigner, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)


North Atlantic right whales once numbered tens of thousands in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean from the Labrador Sea to the coast of Florida. They were nearly driven extinct by whaling at the turn of the century and, tragically, once again, are perilously close to the precipice of extinction because of two completely different anthropogenic threats—entanglement in commercial fishing gear and marine vessel collisions.

For context, the North Atlantic right whale is a species that migrates nearly exclusively through urbanized waters congested with traffic from shipping lanes and commercial fishing and lobster gear. They navigate each year from their feeding grounds around Canada and New England to breeding grounds off the shores of Florida and Georgia. Currently, the population stands at approximately 400 individuals, with only 100 reproductively viable females.

A recent scientific paper released in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms reported on the causes of 70 North Atlantic right whale mortalities recorded within the 16 years between 2003 and 2018. Out of a total of 70 whales, the cause of death was definitively determined for 43. Of those 43 right whales, nearly 90% died as a direct result of human-induced trauma resulting from entanglement in line and vessel collisions. 

A separate study found that 85 percent of right whales had experienced entanglement at least once. For whales, entanglement causes immediate, traumatic drowning and in some cases prolonged, painful deaths resulting from constrictive wraps of line (see infographic from National Geographic October 2019 issue).

Wrapping around the whale’s flippers, tail, head, or mouth, entangling line produces deep lacerations, and even partial amputations of the flippers, often leading to emaciation resulting from an inability to feed properly. This hinders a whale’s health and its ability to eat and can ultimately lead to death from injury or exhaustion.

So far, in 2019 alone, ten right whales have died, a staggering 2.5 percent of the entire population. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines the Potential Biological Removal (PBR), as the ‘maximum number of animals, not including in natural mortalities, that may be removed annually from a marine mammal stock while allowing that stock to reach or maintain its optimal sustainable population level.’ Considering the PBR for right whales is less than one death per year, the species will be functionally extinct within 20 years. If aggressive action isn’t taken soon, they will reach a point of ‘no return’ in just five years.

A 2019 IFAW poll revealed that 77 percent of voters support conservation measures to protect the right whales. Even in a polarized partisan environment, the simple idea that we can work together to find solutions is a powerful driver, with 94 percent responding that they believed collaboration between the lobster industry and right whale protection efforts is indeed possible. Not only does IFAW believe it is possible, we know it is essential.

By working collaboratively with scientists, local and federal regulators, the Canadian government, industry, and lobster fishermen, we can actually build solutions to save the North Atlantic right whale.

One of those solutions involves adapting our current fishing technology itself. This is best embodied by what is generally referred to as ‘ropeless technology,’ the perfect compromise to right whale entanglements, as it eliminates vertical lines in the water column. This ultimately allows lobstermen to fish sustainably with less restrictive regulations since their fishing poses no mortal risk to the local whales. This innovative technology has actually existed for over 20 years but has not yet received the attention it deserves. If the National Marine Fisheries Service is serious about putting adequate measures in place to protect the right whales, then we implore them to include a formal study of technology solutions that can effectively save their lives. 

Another front where progress is possible—and most needed—is federal legislation. The bipartisan Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) Right Whales Act was recently re-introduced in Congress in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and would establish five million dollars in grant funding every year for ten years to save the North Atlantic right whale. Collaborative grants would be allocated to fishermen, the shipping industry, non-governmental organizations, and researchers to find ways to reduce negative human impacts on right whales. This act could fund testing of ropeless technology and help lobster fishermen transition towards less invasive technology.

The tools and technology to move forward with pulling this species back from the precipice of extinction is indeed at our disposal. The drivers of the North Atlantic right whale’s precipitous decline are clear, but the ultimate and irreversible tragedy must be avoided. We can’t fail this magnificent animal—its extinction is simply not an option—not on our watch.

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