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Updated Population Estimates Show ‘Grim’ Outlook For Endangered Right Whale

Michael Dwyer
Associated Press
In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.

The latest population estimate for the endangered North Atlantic right whale indicates the species’ recent decline has quickened — with some 30 fewer animals alive by the end of last year than there were at the end of 2016.

An updated estimate by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientists pegged the number of North Atlantic right whales alive in 2016 in the low 440s. Scientists now say it’s likely that there are not more than 411 left.

The calculation is based on a trove of statistical data, observations of individual animals and a wave of observed mortalities, with no newborn whales observed in the most recent calving season.

“It continues to be what I call grim,” says Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a whale specialist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

Mayo is one of many observers who say without new action, the trend line for the whales will lead to extinction within a few decades. He adds, however, that while there were no newborn whales observed last calving season, there is hope that some 100 fertile females who’ve had an extra year to rest and feed will be more productive this winter.

“And they haven’t been doing anything with regard to pregnancy for the past couple of years. So I anticipate that we’re going to see a real substantial burst. It’s going to need it to make up for the hollow that we’re in,” Mayo says.

Depending on what action federal regulators decide is warranted, Maine’s lobstermen may have to contend with costly new gear changes that aim to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled in trap rope. Action on the issue is expected early next year.

Originally published Nov. 13, 2018 at 4:29 p.m. ET.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.