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Critically Endangered Right Whale Population Drops To An Estimated 336; Lowest In 20 Years

BOSTON (CBS) -- The critically endangered right whale population continues to shrink, a conservation group said Monday. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium says the whales' numbers dropped to an estimated 336 last year, which is believed to be the lowest level in almost two decades.

The species has seen a population decline of 30% in the past decade, down from 481 whales in 2011, the consortium said.

"We are obviously discouraged by this estimate, but quite frankly, not surprised," New England Aquarium scientist Heather Pettis said in a statement. "The right whale research and conservation communities know that while widespread efforts to change the trajectory of the species have been undertaken, they have not been enough."

The biggest threat to right whales? Humans. Experts say 86% of right whales have been entangled by fishing gear at least once, and boat strikes can also prove deadly.

"There is no question that human activities are driving this species toward extinction. There is also no question that North Atlantic right whales are an incredibly resilient species," consortium chair Scott Kraus said in a statement. "No one engaged in right whale work believes that the species cannot recover from this. They absolutely can, if we stop killing them and allow them to allocate energy to finding food, mates, and habitats that aren't marred with deadly obstacles."

Experts said that the tracking of 18 mother-calf pairs in 2021 is a reason to be optimistic, though that number is still lower the average of 23 from the previous decade.

right whales
North Atlantic right whales off the Nantucket coast. (Image Credit: New England Aquarium)

Just two weeks ago, "stunning" photos showed 15 right whales swimming and feeding off Nantucket.

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