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January 10, 2013

Three Things That Are Driving North Atlantic Right Whales Toward Extinction

And how we're fighting to save these massive mammals

The Humane Society of the United States

  • This whale and her calf are two of only a few hundred North Atlantic right whales. Some years, only one calf is born to the entire population. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA

  • North Atlantic right whales live close to the coast, putting them at great risk for collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing lines. orcahome.de

Fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales remain out of a population that once numbered in the tens of thousands in the Atlantic Ocean. Once hunted to near extinction, they are slowly recovering, but collisions with fast-moving ships, entanglement in fishing gear, and climate change threaten their survival.

1. Collisions with ships killing right whales and their young

Being struck by large ships has been a leading cause of death for right whales. They tend to live close to the Atlantic coast, feeding during the spring and summer off New England and Canada. During late fall and winter, as pregnant females migrate to their only known calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida, they must cross the mouths of busy ports such as New York and the Chesapeake Bay. Females and their newborn young are killed in greater numbers than adult males along this dangerous route.

Working to prevent ship strikes

Following a legal petition filed by The HSUS and our allies, in December 2013 the federal government made permanent a regulation requiring certain ships to slow down in designated areas. The rule comes after a five-year trial period of mandatory speed limits, during which there were no right whale deaths within 40 miles of any of the seasonal speed restricted zones. 

2. Deadly entanglement in fishing lines

Right whales share their habitat with some of the busiest fishing areas in the U.S., and fatal entanglement in commercial fishing gear is the second major cause of death in right whales. Right whales may become entangled in nets, in the lines between underwater nets, or in buoy lines that go from the ocean floor to the surface to mark the location of nets or lobster and crab traps. Once entangled, right whales may drown if they are unable to reach the surface to breathe. Others may be able to swim off, entangled in the lines, only to die a slow death from infection or starvation. Chronic entanglement can also impair movement, making the whale more vulnerable to ship collisions.

Fishing gear along our coast is so dense in places that some whales become entangled multiple times. One right whale was entangled in commercial fishing gear once in late 1997, and then two more times in 1998, before being freed of most of the gear. However, some of the fishing gear remained deep in the whale's mouth. This whale was considered seriously injured by this last entanglement and indeed was never again seen alive. In 2001, the nation watched the tragic story of Churchill, a right whale who died slowly of infection despite several well-publicized attempts to disentangle him from the fishing line cutting into him. These sorts of sad stories play out year after year.

The HSUS fighting for fishing industry regulations

Both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act require the government to address the issue of entanglement in fishing gear. On several occasions over the past decade, the HSUS has sued the government to force progress. Most recently, in 2010, our litigation resulted in a regulation requiring that the lines used to connect lobster pots sink to the ocean floor, as a way of reducing the chance of whales encountering the lines.

We are still pushing to have the federal government address the risk to whales from the heavy lines that go from fishing lines on the bottom to marker buoys on the surface. These lines, called vertical lines, are responsible for at least half of the risk to whales.  The HSUS is also appointed to a federal task force currently seeking solutions.

3. Climate changes and habitat depletion

Right whales reproduce very slowly, often not giving birth until their teens and having a single calf only every three to five years. In some years only one calf has been born to the entire population. Warming climates and changes in ocean currents mean there are years when food is harder to find, and the thinner females cannot sustain a pregnancy.

What The HSUS is doing to protect right whale habitat

The HSUS filed a legal petition to expand the boundaries of the designated critical habitat for right whales. Critical habitat defines areas most important to a species’ survival. Once designated, regulations can help reduce pollution in critical habitat and reduce other human impacts. In 2010, the federal government promised to propose changes to the boundaries by the end of 2011. So far, nothing has changed.

Time is running out for right whales

Again and again, The HSUS has been forced to file suit to win overdue protection for North Atlantic right whales. While the National Marine Fisheries Service continues to take its time protecting this critically endangered population, time may be running out to save right whales from extinction.

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