North Atlantic right whales – already the most endangered large whale species in the world – are becoming even more at risk as rising sea temperatures make it harder to find food or safe waters.
Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council said since 2017, 30 deaths have been reported -- 10 since June. That number exceeds how many calves are being born, and puts right whales on a trajectory for extinction, he said.
"These are just reported mortalities," Jasny said of the total right whale population estimated at just 400. "The actual number of deaths is substantially larger, since we know that many go undetected and unreported."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration echoes Jasny, saying that the unprecedented number of right whale deaths over the past few years triggered an Unusual Mortality Event declaration.
The reasons contributing to the dwindling population include vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements and lack of food. Climate change is exacerbating the already deadly situation, according to Jasny, because it is redistributing the crustaceans called copepods that right whales eat.
“It's just obvious that marine species will go where their prey is, and so right whales are now found more often in places that they just didn't use to be,” he said.
Right whales often are seen along Florida and Georgia’s Atlantic coasts, but they are now being seen south of New England during the summer months, which is out of season. Jasny said they’re popping up from Virginia down to Georgia, probably looking for food at these odd times.
Right whales are also spending more time in Canada than they used to, which is causing serious problems for their conservation. The deaths since 2017 are largely due to some form of human action, like boat collisions, in the United States and Canada.
“Quite a few, though not all, of these collisions have happened in the St. Lawrence Estuary up in Canada-- that is an area that, unlike the United States, did not have any speed controls for large commercial vessels until recently,” Jasny said.
“So there you have a case of climate change, by influencing the distribution of the whales, making another problem worse.”
Efforts to save right whales include monitoring new calves, and several were seen off Florida and Georgia’s coasts recently. Right whale calf sightings have hit double digits for this season, which roughly runs from late November through early April. In the 2018-19 season, just seven calves were seen in total.
This week, the tenth calf was observed off the coast of South Carolina. It is 31 year-old Palmetto's fifth calf, after last giving birth in 2009.
“While I’m very happy about the higher calf number, the whales are still in a state of decline,” Jasny said.
In part, that’s because of data showing shorter life expectancy for the whales. Typically, right whales will live more than 70 years, but a right whale that's older than 40 is rarely seen today.
“It would be as if we humans suddenly found ourselves with a lifespan we would have had in the in the Middle Ages," Jasny said. “And because of the stress they're under from entanglements and noise and other factors, moms are having calves at a much slower rate than they used to. They're on a calving cycle, it's approaching about 10 years, and then they're dying.”
There is currently bipartisan support in Congress for a bill called the SAVE Right Whales Act, which would give about $5 million a year for 10 years to the development and implementation of measures to address the mortality problem.
However, Jasny said he feels the federal government is doing little to help reduce fishing gear entanglements.
“It has constantly delayed production of those regulations. Now it says that we won't see a proposal of new rules until July, and by that time, will be in the gravitational well of the November election,” he said.
That could mean a proposal on entanglement would be delayed until after November, Jasny said.
“Right whales are in a desperate situation,” he said. “They can't afford more months of bureaucratic delay born out of fear of doing something that could rankle people during an election year.”