North Atlantic right whales
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most critically endangered animals in the world. Travelling along North America’s east coast, right whales must navigate a sea of deadly fishing gear, vertical buoy line, and industrialised shipping zones. To make matters worse, only one quarter are reproductive-aged females capable of producing more calves. This means that the death of even one animal can have a critical impact on the species’ survival. The good news – with prompt action and new technology, we can save the North Atlantic right whale.
Photo: Nick Hawkins
Where do North Atlantic right whales live?
Atlantic Ocean, off the east coast of North America
Historically considered the “right whales to hunt” due to their slowness and thick blubber layer, right whale populations declined drastically from whaling in the 19th century. By the late 1800s, the North Atlantic right whale was nearly hunted to extinction. In 1935, the League of Nations (governing body before the United Nations) banned the hunting of right whales with hopes of giving them a chance to recover.
Today, North Atlantic right whales face a sea of danger as they migrate along one of the most industrialised areas of the ocean: the east coast of Canada and the United States. The two biggest threats against their survival are vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Vessel strikes leave right whales with agonising injuries that often lead to death within days or weeks. Weighed down by hundreds of pounds of fishing gear, entangled right whales are unable to move freely through the water, feed, and reproduce. Over time, they die a slow death either from starvation or injury.
How many North Atlantic right whales are left?
Scientists estimate that there are fewer than 360 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Every individual matters for the species’ survival.
IFAW’s biologists, veterinarians, and policy experts are tackling the crisis from many angles by collaborating with other scientists, local fishermen, consumers, and policymakers in both Canada and the United States.
To solve a problem, you first have to understand it. For right whales, this means investigating why their population has precipitously declined in the last decade. To help accomplish this, IFAW has one of the most experienced teams of biologists and veterinarians to perform detailed necropsies (animal autopsies) on right whales. In 2019, multi-agency research led by IFAW veterinarian Dr Sarah Sharp revealed the shocking reality for right whales. Between 2003 and 2018, nearly 90% of all right whale deaths that could be definitively determined were caused by entanglement and vessel-induced trauma. What does this mean? Right whales are dying at the hands of humans and only we have the power to change this course.
Because every individual whale matters, all options must be explored to increase the survival of whales suffering from these threats. IFAW is leading the way by leading methods for large whale medical intervention at sea. This is the only project of its kind in the world that maintains the equipment and experienced personnel needed to give these whales the chance to survive. Combining veterinary expertise, large whale experience, and a custom-made darting system, IFAW can deliver medications such as antibiotics to fight infections caused by extensive injuries, or sedatives to calm entangled whales so they can be more safely and successfully disentangled.
But long-term solutions are needed...
Our team is one of the leading organisations to work directly with both fishermen and underwater technology companies to advance ropeless fishing gear. Eliminate vertical buoy rope from the water column – and you reduce the threat of entanglement. In 2018, IFAW worked with the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association to test the functionality of on-demand acoustic release (i.e. ropeless) technology designed by Desert Star Systems during non-fishing conditions. In the past year, IFAW has expanded its industry engagement by partnering with the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association for at-sea pilot testing during real-time fishing operations using another ropeless gear system manufactured by Massachusetts-based EdgeTech Underwater Technologies. The key is to adopt sustainable solutions that allow fishermen to continue their livelihoods while also ensuring whales remain safe in the water.
In Washington DC, we’ve worked with members of Congress to introduce the SAVE Right Whales Act. If passed, the bill will establish a new competitive grant programme to support critical research and stakeholder collaboration on new initiatives to protect right whales. We also work with the Government of Canada to implement and enforce speed restrictions for vessels, as well as advocating for rerouting of high-volume shipping lanes to protect right whales during migration season.
The actions we take today will determine the future for the North Atlantic right whale. It’s going to take all of us – government officials, fishermen, scientists, campaigners, and consumers like you – to save the North Atlantic right whale.
How can you help save the North Atlantic right whale?
Wondering how you can help protect right whales? Take action right now by making a tax-deductible donation to IFAW. Your donation will help IFAW rescue and protect animals around the world.
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Campaigner - Marine Conservation
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Deputy Vice President - Animal Rescue
Director – Marine Mammal Rescue & Research
Animal Rescue Veterinarian
Dr. Sarah Sharp
Stranding Coordinator - Marine Mammal Rescue & Research
Senior Director - Outreach & Program Collaboration
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