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Endangered right whale population falls to a 20-year low

Right Whale Deaths
Michael Dwyer
FILE - 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 population of North Atlantic right whales has dipped to the lowest level in two decades, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

The number of endangered North Atlantic right whales left on the planet continues to fall, raising the stakes in the debate over what role Maine's lobster fishery plays in the species' decline.

Scientists say the population of right whales last year fell to 336, the lowest number in 20 years. It has been on a steady decline, down 30% in just the last decade.

"It's the same old story of entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes. That is why their mortality remains quite high," says Philip Hamilton, a New England Aquarium scientist who administers a catalogue of all known North Atlantic right whales. He says that while this year's crop of new whale calves, at 18, is healthy compared to other recent years, it's still not enough to put the species back on the road to sustainability.

"But they can recover from this. They've recovered from smaller population numbers before," Hamilton says. "So they can't sustain this trajectory, but we have control over that trajectory by reducing mortality, human-caused mortality."

This summer federal regulators established a new plan aimed at reducing the risk that whales will have lethal encounters with trap gear and rope. The first step - a seasonal ban on trap rope in a 1,000 square mile patch of ocean off Maine was supposed to go into effect last week. But a federal judge put that on hold, pending his consideration of the merits of a challenge mounted by lobstermen in the area.