Number of New England North Atlantic right whales drops to around 340

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For more than 40 years, a group of New England researchers have been keeping tabs on hundreds of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales they know by name. They have taken millions of photographs of these whales by sky and sea, often tracing when they gave birth, were injured, and who their mothers, siblings, cousins ​​and grandparents are.

But, to their dismay, the population of North Atlantic right whales has fallen to a level not seen since around 2001 – a steady decline that has continued for more than a decade, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. . This is largely due to climate change and man-made fatalities, experts say.

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New figures from the group, released on Monday, suggest that only around 340 of the whales were alive in 2021, a sharp drop from the nearly 500 recorded in 2010. (Researchers track the whales by photographing them year-round, and their Estimates are often published with a small margin of error.)

“These whales have been roaming these waters for tens of thousands of years, and they have an inalienable right to continue to be able to do so,” said Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium who has been tracking the North Atlantic all the way. whales for more than three decades. “A lot has happened in the last decade – increased mortality, decreased reproduction, and they have to change when and where they feed due to climate change.”

As the story goes, right whales got their name because they were the “right” whales to hunt hundreds of years ago, when blubber was a key commodity for trade. Members of the North Atlantic species weigh up to 70 tons, measure up to 55 feet, and live up to 70 years.

Whales are “iconic” in New England, Hamilton said, and they can be found anywhere along the coast, from eastern Canada to Florida. Their population has grown from less than 300 in 1990 to almost 500 in 2010, although the reason is not entirely clear. the population may have fluctuated due to natural cyclical patterns that affected the supply of zooplankton, their main diet, he said.

“It’s a very, very complex ecosystem that changes with temperature, primarily, but also salinity,” he said. “We expect to see some of these cyclical fluctuations in food abundance in different regions.”

Nonetheless, Hamilton said that pattern hasn’t “bounced back” since 2010.

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Warming water temperatures caused by climate change are affecting where zooplankton breed abundantly, which in turn has pushed North Atlantic right whales to areas with less regulatory protection in recent years. . For example, many whales have been killed by entanglements and collisions with ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Hamilton said, prompting Canada to start adopting measures to manage ship traffic during parts of the year. During this time, it is illegal to approach within 500 meters of right whales in US waters.

About 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once, and researchers are able to tell when one has been injured by fishing ropes because of the scarring. According to Hamilton, female whales of this species often stop breeding if they have suffered severe entanglements, or they may produce young once every six to seven years instead of the usual three.

Just 15 calves were born in 2022, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium said in the report, a substantial drop from the average of 24 per year in the early 2000s.

“We need to improve their health and survival by slowing and redirecting vessels to minimize vessel trauma,” said Michael Moore, senior scientist in the biology department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “To avoid the risk of entanglement trauma, we need to remove fishing lines from the water column,” he added, referring to the vertical span between the ocean surface and the bottom.

Scientists around the world have begun to develop ropeless fishing systems that would eliminate the lines that connect crab or lobster fishing gear to buoys marking their location on the ocean surface. In Massachusetts, researchers have begun testing “virtual buoys” that track the location of fishing traps and trigger them to surface using acoustic signals.

“There are legislative, financial and technical hurdles that need to be overcome before it can be used on a very large scale,” Hamilton said. “But it has progressed very rapidly over the past four to five years in response to the dire situation with the whales.”

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