With one more reported death, biologists extremely concerned about right whales’ future

UPDATE: The total is now 10The 10th and most recent carcass of the critically endangered species North Atlantic Right Whale species was reported found in the gulf on August 1, 2017. The blog below originally appeared on July 20, 2017.

We recently received more sad news regarding the already critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Another right whale was discovered dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada by a research flight. The same flight also sighted a live right whale with a very severe entanglement and visible injuries.  The dead whale was the eighth found in just the past few weeks, bringing the total number of dead right whales this year to nine. That includes a one-year-old right whale that was found dead in Cape Cod Bay earlier this year

Experts in Canada and from the US have been working tirelessly to examine the whales to determine what is happening and why.  Preliminary results from several of the cases where a necropsy (animal autopsy) was possible have shown evidence of trauma from vessel strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. The young right whale found dead in Cape Cod Bay showed clear signs of extensive blunt trauma, likely caused by a vessel strike.

The high number of deaths this year, combined with a very low number of calves born (only five calves have been observed this year), is incredibly troubling news for this already fragile population.

Throughout my career I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to study and work to protect right whales. This year, for the first time, I am truly concerned that this population may be on the path toward disappearing forever. What really saddens me is that we as humans have directly caused many of the recent deaths.  This species, although protected since the 1970s, is still trying to recover from the impacts of whaling.  While right whales are no longer hunted, humans are still directly causing their deaths and inhibiting their ability to restore their population to historic levels. 

The research, stranding and disentanglement work that both local US and Canadian teams carry out every day is important. Now more than ever protections afforded to these species in the United States under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act are essential to the survival of these cetaceans. Dedicated funding and continued support of legislation that protects right whales is essential to allow researchers and responders to continue this crucial work and make progress towards recovering this species.

I hope that this bad news is the last we hear for a while, but I fear it is not. I hope this sends out a resounding message that we as researchers, conservationists, wildlife managers, industry and society as a whole can work together to find a way to save this species. I don’t want to imagine a world without right whales.   


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation