Protecting the last of the North Atlantic Right Whales

North Atlantic right whales teeter on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the eastern and western North Atlantic, now only an estimated 411 survive in a reduced habitat range along the East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada.

WDC’s efforts to save endangered North Atlantic right whales from extinction:  

Hunted from the 11th century, right whales were nearly extinct when they finally received protection from whaling in 1935. Even so, the population has struggled to recover as they face mounting modern-day threats from accidental fishing gear entanglements, vessel strikes, habitat loss and pollution.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North Atlantic Right Whale Project aims to ensure the survival of this endangered species through grassroots to international measures. WDC engages with schools and with the public so that they better understand the impacts of man-made threats and to promote their survival through better stewardship. WDC provides scientific expertise to lawyers and federal managers on measures that can reduce life-threatening risks to right whales from vessel strikes, entanglements, and habitat degradation as well as securing a protected habitat throughout their range.

The Issues

Man has been and continues to be the greatest threat to the survival of many whale species. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the loss of one or two reproducing female North Atlantic right whales per year from human activity could lead to extinction. Yet since 2012, more than 36 right whales have died, over half of which were killed since June of 2017. Tragically, these mortalities are directly related to human causes with accidental entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes remaining their biggest threat. The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that no adult right whales have died from natural causes in decades. Other significant obstacles to the survival and recovery of the species include a changing climate shifting prey and right whales into higher risk habitats as well as the physiological impacts of noise pollution.

Accidental entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes pose the most imminent and dangerous obstacles to the recovery of North Atlantic right whales. As a result, WDC’s primary work is focused on these threats with additional efforts additional efforts to protect their habitat and reduce the impacts of noise and climate change on this imperilled species. 

Successes

Habitat Loss

In 2009 WDC and its partners at The Humane Society of the United States, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife, petitioned for an increase in the Endangered Species Act designation of critical habitat to include the right whale’s entire range. It took over five years of diligently working with our partners to get the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate protections for 39,414 square miles of ocean as critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales. 

Ship Strikes

Through the efforts of WDC, the Final Rule to Implement Speed Restrictions to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions with North Atlantic Right Whales was enacted along major shipping ports of the US East Coast.  Initially only in place for five years, WDC successfully worked its Act Right Now Campaign to ensure this Rule continued beyond its scheduled closure in December of 2013.  The rule has been extended indefinitely. 

Entanglements

WDC was instrumental in the development and release of a federal Rule mandating the use of sinking ground line in trap pot fisheries, and the reduction in the number of buoy lines used in the American lobster fishery, along the East Coast of the US. As a federally appointed member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, WDC continues to work toward the reduction of entanglements of right whales.

Education

WDC is part of the Education Committee for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.  Through this effort we have worked with other representatives to develop a North Atlantic right whale curriculum unit, geared towards middle school-aged children.  WDC is active in presenting at local schools and events on right whales and other large whales seen in our area.

Next Steps

As part of the Ropless gear consortium, WDC is advocating for testing areas to develop "ropeless gear", a gear type which would eliminate vertical lines in the water column, significantly reducing the risk of entanglement to right whales. 

WDC is supporting a global ship speed rule which would reduce emissions, ocean noise, and the risk of ship strikes to whales.

Through its At the Helm of Conservation boater outreach projects, WDC is working with commercial whale watch operators, sailors, and recreational boaters to identify and report sightings of right whales as well as whales entangled in fishing gear.