What’s Happening to the North Atlantic Right Whale Is Just Plain Wrong

Scientists say the species could be functionally extinct in as little as 20 years—but there are some solutions within reach.

Owen Freeman

Imagine if safari-goers in Africa came upon an elephant trudging through the brush covered in a tangle of ropes and netting. What if, on closer inspection, they found that the animal’s mouth was blocked, preventing it from eating, or that lengths of rope had coiled around and cut into its legs, making every stride a battle? Imagine if the last thing those tourists saw was the elephant disappearing into the forest, dragging a veritable ball and chain of man-made debris behind it.

Unfortunately, this hypothetical scenario comes pretty close to the actual, real-life nightmare suffered on a daily basis by a different creature, the North Atlantic right whale, in its primary habitat off the east coast of the United States and Canada.

“It’s a horrific animal welfare issue, but because it’s out there in the ocean, we generally can’t see it,” says Francine Kershaw, a scientist with NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project.

Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remain on earth, and of that tiny population, 83 percent bear scars from entanglements in fishing gear. Around half of those have been entangled more than once. All in all, entanglement is now the number one cause of death for this species, responsible for 85 percent of all deaths since 2010, which both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Union for Conservation of Nature classify as endangered.

Over the past few decades, the North Atlantic right whale had been seeing slow but steady gains, thanks to international efforts to protect critical habitats, move shipping lanes away from the whales, and develop methods to monitor the whales’ health. But the population peaked around 2010 and is now in decline. At least 17 of the animals died as a result of entanglements and boat strikes in 2017—nearly twice as many as had died in the previous five years combined.

It gets worse. “It seems the females have been recovering less well than males,” says Kershaw. Of the 450 or so animals remaining, fewer than 100 are breeding females. What’s more, Kershaw says, females used to live for about 60 to 70 years but are now making it only to around 30 or 40. And whereas they produced a calf every three years in the 1980s, females are now raising a baby whale just about once per decade.

In fact, this year scientists have yet to find a single calf among the entire North Atlantic right whale population. It is possible that the animals are losing their ability to replace their dead. And for such slow-to-mature, slow-to-reproduce animals, a trend like that can go on for only so long. “At this rate of decline, they’re estimated to be functionally extinct in approximately 20 years,” says Kershaw.

Twenty years. The Simpsons may outlast them.

Are you ready for the good news? We already have a solution on hand to reverse their fate. It’s called ropeless gear.

To understand why such a simple, tangible fix could play a key role in boosting the species’ numbers, it’s important to understand the main cause of right whale entanglements. Various fishing industries employ long, vertical ropes, such as those that connect lobster and crab traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the water’s surface. These lines allow fishermen to find their traps—also known as pots—once they’ve dropped them. When whales run into these lines, their first instinct is to roll, which is how they become ensnared. Sometimes the ropes trap the whales and drown them, but more often the whales break the pots from their moorings and escape—albeit with literally tons of gear in tow. These tethers cut into the animals’ skin and force them to spend more calories than normal just to swim. Kershaw points out that some ensnared whales may just starve to death over time as a result.

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But attaching traps to long ropes is not the only way for fishermen to find their gear. Ropeless technology provides new methods for locating that equipment without posing threats to the whales. “This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea,” says Caroline Good, a marine ecologist and scientific consultant. “This is something that can be implemented and actually is being used right now in some parts of the world.”

One method is to tag gear with GPS and then grab it using a grappling hook. In fact, fishermen are already doing this in Florida’s golden crab fishery, even in waters up to 800 feet deep. But Good says grappling hooks may be too simplistic to apply in much larger fisheries, like the crab and lobster operations of New England and Canada’s Atlantic provinces. For these areas, acoustic retrieval mechanisms probably have the most promise. These systems would allow fishermen to send a signal down to their gear that either triggers the release of a guide rope or the inflation of a buoy to cause the whole kit and caboodle to surface. As Good points out, this technology is not new—it’s been used for decades by the military, the oil and gas industry, geologists, and other researchers. “It’s just the idea of using it for fisheries that’s new,” she says.

Of course, a host of issues will need to be sorted out before ropeless gear can be implemented widely. For starters, fishermen will need a new way to know where their colleagues are deploying nets and traps so that they don’t accidentally lay another set down on top. Similarly, operators of other fisheries, especially those using trawl nets or dragnets, will need to be looped into the system to keep from inadvertently plowing through the buoy-less gear. And finally, law enforcement will need to find a way to retain access to the submerged gear for inspection.

But these and other issues are solvable, so long as all stakeholders are included in the industry’s evolution. “We feel it’s very important for this to be done in partnership with the fishing industry,” says Kershaw, “and it's imperative that the National Marine Fisheries Service show greater leadership.”

Of course, ropeless gear alone can’t save the North Atlantic right whale. Kershaw says it’s crucial that we continue to push back against the oil and gas industry’s use of seismic testing and the U.S. Navy’s use of military sonar, as both have been linked to increased stress and negative health effects in whales and other marine mammals. It’s also critical that we fight to defend the Marine Mammal Protection Act, under threat by the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling to nearly all American waters, among various other pieces of proposed legislation.

In summation, if we want to save the North Atlantic right whales from going extinct, we’ll need to play both the short game and the long. Luckily, the whales may yet have a few tricks up their sleeves too.

Remember how scientists have yet to find a new calf in 2018? It certainly sounds like bad news, but you could also consider it a survival mechanism for the whale females. Or at the very least, the lesser of two scary scenarios.

“The real disaster would be emaciated moms giving birth to calves that they then cannot nurse because they don’t have enough fat,” Good says. This could lead to the deaths of both the mothers and the calves, which would essentially be the last nail in the coffin. Instead, years without calves may occur when the female whales’ bodies save them from the intense energy expenditure required to produce and rear a calf.

“From an evolutionary, long-term standpoint, their bodies know what to do,” says Good. In other words, the North Atlantic right whales are doing all they can to keep their present numbers steady. As for their future, it’s up to us.

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