Conservation experts warn the North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction.
On July 9, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international conservation group based in England, added the right whale to its Red List, classifying it as critically endangered, estimating there to be fewer than 250 mature whales alive today.
Canadian marine scientist Tonya Wimmer, director of the Marine Animal Response Society, is hopeful that the international attention and new designation for the giant whale species can help protect the dwindling population.
She says including calves, there are around 400 right whales left.
“We know why they die — for the most part, we know they get hit by vessels and caught in fishing gear. And we know why they’re injured — it’s the same two things,” said Wimmer, who along with four colleagues just published the 2019 North Atlantic Right Whale Incident Report.
The 210-page report details the dire circumstances for the right whale species whose population has steadily declined over the past two decades.
Last year was a particularly devastating one for the right whale, as nine were found dead, floating in Canadian waters in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the eastern coast of Nova Scotia.
According to the report, necropsies revealed four of the whales were determined to have died from vessel strikes.
“These are animals that used to number in the tens of thousands and we’re talking about 411, likely less now,” said Wimmer.
The right whales have been migrating along the east coast of North America from Florida and further north and into the Gulf of St Lawrence consistently since 2017, which was the worst year in recent decades for the whales after 12 were found dead in Canadian waters.
The species has seen a consistent population decline and nothing over the past decade has changed the course for these hulking mammals who are slow to reproduce, says Wimmer.
She wants more action from international governments and marine experts, collaborating to protect the whales.
In Canada, the right whale has been listed as critically endangered since 2005, but Wimmer hopes this international classification will lead to more collaboration between international agencies and help coordinate efforts to protect the surviving population.
“What we really need to see is actions that reduce the risk of vessel strikes and entanglements,” she said.
It’s anticipated since 2017, that half of the right whale population have been migrating further north and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in around the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador.
A young right whale was found dead off the coast of New Jersey last month after being hit by a ship.
In Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has reported no deaths or entanglements in Canadian waters so far this season.
Have the waters calmed from the pandemic? It’s put a halt to the cruise ship season, so there have been fewer large vessels navigating the waters.
However, Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed fishing activities in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has been on par with previous seasons.
Adam Burns the director-general of the fisheries resource management says the DFO is taking several new measures to protect the right whale species, including identifying critical habitat and where the whales are located with the use of acoustic technology and aerial surveillance by plane.
Other innovations and modifications to fishing gear have also been credited in keeping the population safer this season.
“As a result of those measures currently we have an area about three times the size of P.E.I. in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that is closed to fixed gear fishing activity,” said Burns.
For the past four years, Transport Canada has implemented a mandatory seasonal speed restriction of 10 knots over an area that covers much of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
It also implemented mandatory 10-knot speed restrictions in shipping lanes when a North Atlantic right whale is detected.
A study by Dalhousie University assistant professor David Barclay in the department of oceanography has shown the Pacific ocean and the busy coastal shipping channel has been quieter during the pandemic.
A British Columbia study examining noise levels in the Straight of Georgia found noise levels in the water in April were five decibels quieter than the previous year — that’s a 50 percent drop in noise pollution, says Barclay.
“We found in the inshore waters just outside the port of Vancouver, that the mean weekly power had decreased by about half over that first quarter,” said Barclay.
“Over the first three months and offshore in the deep, deep ocean it had reduced by about 15 per cent.”