Right Whales Suffer Precipitous Decline

356. The number of North Atlantic right whales estimated to remain on earth at the end of 2019. This is a precipitous decline from an estimated population size of 409 whales just a year ago. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are responsible.

A disentanglement team throws a custom tool called a “cutting grapple” to remove a large portion of fishing rope trailing from the left side of a North Atlantic right whale’s mouth

Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA research permit #15488

The number was released in a statement by NOAA and represents the best modelled population estimate at the start of January 2019 (366 whales) minus the ten observed deaths during 2019. This estimate is preliminary and will undergo further analysis and a robust peer review process before being finalized.

News of the loss of 53 whales ricocheted through the right whale community. The number was much higher than expected and indicates that the impact of the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event—declared in 2017 and involving 42 individuals to date over the past three years—was worse than previously thought. Also, updated photo-identification data now indicate that the 2018 population size was overestimated; NOAA is preliminarily revising its original January 2018 estimate down from 412 to 383 right whales (not including the three deaths reported in 2018).

Since the population peaked in 2011, we have lost roughly 24 whales per year. The number of deaths or serious injuries per year considered to be sustainable for the population is less than one whale.

The number of reproductive females—the lifeblood of the species—is also disturbingly low. NOAA estimates there are fewer than 94 breeding females remaining and very few females successfully calve each year (ten calves were born in the 2019-2020 calving season; two have already been killed by vessel collisions).

We will lose this species forever unless we act now. Right whales are declining because of us. And we can still save this incredible species. We must protect every individual whale from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear in both U.S. and Canadian waters. We can do this by advancing ropeless fishing gear and slowing down vessels. We also need leadership from NOAA to issue strong regulations to meaningfully reduce risk to right whales.

You can TAKE ACTION NOW to help increase funding for innovative solutions to end entanglements and vessel strikes of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Staff Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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