Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Good News for Right Whales

A right whale trailing fishing gear. Image via NOAA.

Researchers have confirmed that at least five new North Atlantic right whale calves have been born this season in U.S. waters. This is very good news for the highly endangered species – with only about 411 individuals estimated in the population – and a very hopeful sign after a calf-less year. Better still, the fifth calf is from a first-time mom!

While this is a positive sign for the population, human activities still pose the biggest threats to right whales, specifically ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. For example from 2010-2016,  entanglement in fixed fishing gear, such as gillnets or the vertical lines used to haul up lobster traps, accounted for as high as 85 percent of right whale deaths.

If anything, this year’s five new calves only further emphasize the need for increased protections. Thankfully, today, the Government of Canada announced new protection measures for the North Atlantic right whale in 2019 to both reduce the probability of ship strike and address the possibility of entanglement in fishing gear. Building off the successful measures implemented last year, the new measures include a mandatory speed restriction for vessels 20 meters or longer in the Western Gulf of St. Lawrence; seasonal closures for snow crab, lobster, and other fixed-gear fisheries in specific areas; and temporary closures triggered by one sighting of a right whale in shallow water.

This is the second year in a row that the Government of Canada has taken serious steps to reduce risks to right whales. The U.S., however, has not implemented a single new conservation measure since 2014, even though 18 whales have died since April 2017.

Five new calves is certainly something to celebrate, but if there is any hope for the North Atlantic right whale population recovering, we need protective measures on both sides of the border. The U.S. needs to stop its foot-dragging and implement some effective measures to protect right whales.


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