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Population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales hits near 20-year low — and humans are largely to blame

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North Atlantic right whales, an already critically endangered species, have hit the lowest population numbers in nearly 20 years, researchers announced on Monday. The species has seen a sharp decline since around 2011 — and experts say, humans are largely to blame. 

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said that the whale's population dropped from an estimated 366 in 2019 to 336 in 2020, a decline of 8%. The group said this is the lowest population number for the species in nearly two decades.

In the past decade alone, researchers said, the species has declined by 30%. 

"We are obviously discouraged by this estimate, but quite frankly, not surprised," said Heather Pettis, associate scientist in the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. "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."

This whale species, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), is one of the "world's most endangered large whale species." They have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. 

Scott Kraus, chair of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, pointed to humans for the decline, saying, "there is no question that human activities are driving this species toward extinction." 

Researchers specifically pointed to the impact that the fishing industry has had on the whales. The New England Aquarium said in a press release that vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements are the "biggest threats" to the species. According to the aquarium's own research, 86% of identified right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. 

Climate change is also a contributing factor to the species' decline. One study published in August found that the warming temperatures created a "less favorable foraging environment." Essentially, researchers found, global warming is one reason the whales are forced to migrate to more dangerous areas so that they can eat. The areas that they have moved to, researchers found, have fewer protections in place to prevent vessel strikes and fishing entanglements.

So far this year, there have been at least two documented North Atlantic right whale deaths, the New England Aquarium said. One of the whales was hit by a recreational fishing boat in calving grounds off of Florida in February. The other had been "entangled and emaciated." 

The aquarium said that the overall number of documented mortalities this year is low, which is "encouraging," but that typically just 36% of right whale mortalities are detected. 

The aquarium also noted research published in Current Biology this June that shows the size of right whales has decreased over the past 40 years. Researchers found entanglements in fishing gear and other incidents are stunting the species' growth, with adults reaching a full-grown length of about three feet shorter than one born in 1980. The calves of whale mothers that were entangled are also smaller, researchers found. 

Still, Kraus said, the right whales are "an incredibly resilient species," and he expects they can make a comeback given adequate help. So far this year, researchers have tracked 18 mother-calf right whale pairs, which they say is "cause for optimism," despite it being below the annual average of 23 pairs.

"No one engaged in right whale work believes that the species cannot recover from this," Kraus said. "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." 

Researchers say that saving the species will require bolder and more immediate action, echoing calls from 2017 that warned the species could become extinct if such action doesn't take place.

"We as humans have put these whales in the predicament they are in, and we have the ability to help them out of it," Pettis said. "Broad collaboration and a long-term commitment to ensuring this species' survival is required and urgent actions to prevent entanglements and collisions with vessels must be implemented."

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