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Right whale population is steadying, but human-caused injuries remain high

A pair of North Atlantic right whales interact at the surface of Cape Cod Bay, in Massachusetts, on March 27, 2023.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
A pair of North Atlantic right whales interact at the surface of Cape Cod Bay, in Massachusetts, on March 27, 2023.

After years of steep declines, the number of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales may be leveling off.

A new report from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the New England Aquarium suggests the number of whales being born is roughly the same as the number that are dying.

"There is hope. The decline is slowing," said Philip Hamilton, a senior scientist with the aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. "Managers, whales and scientists have all slowly been adapting to a really major change in where the population spends most of its time. Right whales have gone through massive changes in their habitats over the centuries they've been around. They can adapt, as long as we can adapt and lessen the amount of harm that we're causing.

Still, scientists say that even with a glimmer of positive news, right whales have suffered a high number of human-caused injuries this year.

The number of North Atlantic right whales has leveled off slightly within the last few years, after steep population declines
Courtesy of the New England Aquarium
The number of North Atlantic right whales has leveled off slightly within the last few years, after scientists observed steep population declines in the mid-to-late 2010s.

The aquarium identified at least 32 right whale injuries. At least two were hit by boats. Six have been entangled and spotted with fishing gear attached. The aquarium detected 24 other entanglements without attached gear.

Hamilton said those injuries are taking their toll on would-be mothers, who are giving birth to their first calves later in life. Just more than 41 females between ages of 10 and 20 have never given birth to their first calf.

"Relatively recent data has shown that right whales are not growing as large as they used to, and that the smaller whales don't have as many calves," Hamilton said.

Eleven cl
Courtesy of the New England Aquarium
Eleven right whale calves were born this year, down from each of the last two years.

Eleven calves were born in this year, down from each of the last two years. At least two individuals have died in 2023, though scientists caution that about two-thirds of right whale mortalities are undetected.

Roughly 350 right whales remain, as the aquarium recalculated its 2021 and 2022 population estimates based on the addition of recently catalogued calves that were born within the last years.

The new data will be reviewed by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which is holding its annual meeting in Halifax later this week.