The North Atlantic right whale is the victim of a Unusual Mortality Event (UME).
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “since June 7, 2017, elevated North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) mortalities have been documented, primarily in Canada and were declared an Unusual Mortality Event“
“In 2017, there was a total of 17 confirmed dead stranded whales (12 in Canada; 5 in the United States) and in 2018, three whales stranded in the United States,” NOAA added, noting that before the UME only around five North Atlantic right whale were found dead across Canada and the United States each year.
The troubling trend has continued into 2019. This year, eight dead whales have stranded in Canada, and a ninth stranded whale was recently discovered in the waters off Long Island, New York. This was the first dead North Atlantic right whale to be found in U.S. waters this year.
This UME is especially worrisome since the North Atlantic right whale is endangered, with only about 400 right whales remaining in the wild, just 95 of which are breeding females, reports NOAA.
“If we don’t act fast, we could see a large whale species go extinct in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in centuries,” Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer at Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation, said in a statement. “The U.S. and Canadian governments must both intervene immediately to get this species back on a recovery path. Even a single death by ship strike or entanglement in a given year is too much. Speed and convenience cannot be prioritized over the survival of this iconic species.”
The whales were almost hunted to extinction in the 1920s, but were able to rebound after whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935. According to Oceana, entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships are the greatest threats to right whales in 2019.
“North Atlantic right whales have been swimming along extinction’s cliff for nearly a hundred years, but events over the last several years might push them over the edge if we don’t act now,” Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana in the United States, said. “A jungle of roughly one million fishing lines sprawls across right whale migration routes and feeding areas in the U.S. and Canada. We know right whales are dying from fishing gear entanglements and must find a way to reduce the number of lines in the water.”
In response to these threats, Oceana wants the Canadian and U.S. governments to reduce the amount of vertical lines used by fisheries, close fisheries that are a threat to right whales, modify fishing gear to make it less dangerous to the species, enhance monitoring of fisheries, enact speed restrictions to protect right whales from boat strikes and more.
NOAA’s research into the cause of the right whale UME appears to supports Oceana’s beliefs.
“As part of the UME investigation process, NOAA assembled an independent team of scientist to coordinate with the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events to review the data collected, sample stranded whales, and determine the next steps for the investigation,” NOAA wrote on their website. “We are continuing to investigate these mortalities but preliminary findings support human interactions, specifically vessel strikes or rope entanglements, as the cause of death for the majority of the whales.”
The government agency added that “full necropsy examinations have been conducted on 17 of the 29 whales and final results from the examinations are pending.”