Right Whale Breeding Season Ends Without Calves

File image courtesy NOAA

By The Maritime Executive 04-02-2018 06:04:00

On Saturday, the breeding season for North Atlantic right whales ended without the sighting of a single new calf, the first time that this has occurred since recording began. Only five calves were born the year before. The low replacement numbers add to conservation concerns raised by the high mortality rate for adult whales in recent years. 

The North Atlantic right whale is more endangered than any other large whale species, and the main cause of its decline is accidental entrapment in fishing gear - primarily lobster trap and crab trap retrieval lines. Technology for retrieving lobster traps without static lines exists, but lobster fishing operators say that it is unaffordable. A prototype version developed by researchers at Woods Hole costs about $12,000. 

“If the right whale trajectory continues, the breeding females are going to be gone in 20 years, there’s only about 100 of them left right now and we’re losing about four every year," said Woods Hole director Michael Moore, speaking to Maine Public Radio. He suggested that the new technology would be more cost-effective for lobster fishermen than complete fishery closures. 

Canadian snow crab fishermen may bear a large part of the blame, says Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner Patrick Kelliher, speaking to NPR. He points out that most of the fatalities last year were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, north of the Gulf of Maine, and that many of the whales were found entangled in a heavier line, not like the lighter material used in the lobster fishery. Part of the reason for the heavy toll may also be that right whale migration patterns are changing, and the whales are ending up in areas where legal restrictions meant to protect them do not exist. 

If environmental groups succeed in court, those restrictions may expand. In February, the Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice filed a suit in a D.C. federal court to require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association to take action to protect the right whale. “Research shows that entanglement in fishing gear has accounted for 85 percent of right whale deaths in recent years," said CLF attorney Emily Green in a statement. “Regulators are not just morally mandated to act . . . they are also legally required to ensure fishing efforts do not cause harm to these animals.” The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States filed a comparable lawsuit against NOAA in January.