Right Whales Uplisted to Critically Endangered by IUCN

Right whale #3560 with her calf off Georgia in December 2019. The calf was found dead off New Jersey in June after suffering injuries from a vessel strike.

Credit: Georgia DNR/CMARI Aerial Survey via NOAA Fisheries

North Atlantic right whales have been uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), sounding the alarm that the species is only one step away from extinction.

IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive source of information on the conservation status of species globally and is a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity.

The uplisting comes on the heels of the devastating news that a right whale calf - one of only ten born during the most recent calving season - was killed by a vessel strike off the coast of New Jersey. A second calf suffered what were almost certainly mortal wounds from a vessel strike in January. The calf and its mother have not been seen since.

USCG Sandy Hook and AMSEAS staff work together to tow the dead calf found off New Jersey to shore. The calf was one of only ten born last year.

Credit: Marine Mammal Stranding Center via NOAA Fisheries

The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear—North Atlantic right whales are dying needlessly at the hands of humans. A combination of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements have decimated the population. There have been 31 confirmed deaths since 2017 and another 10 living right whales are known to have serious injuries from which they will not recover. These 41 whales represent a shocking 10 percent of the remaining population that hovers around only 400 individuals.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that the right whale’s rapid decline will become irreversible within this decade if we do not take immediate action. This grim fact spurred experts at the New England Aquarium to petition IUCN for the uplisting in order to gain global recognition of the species’ dire status.

Every single living right whale is precious, and we need to use all available tools to protect them. This includes asking your senators to cosponsor the SAVE Right Whales Act, which will create a new targeted funding stream to support right whale conservation, such as new technologies to help end entanglements and vessel strikes.

We can still pull North Atlantic right whales back from what is literally brink of extinction, but there is no more time left to waste.

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Staff Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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