The state of North Atlantic right whales is precarious.

Case in point: Spindle, a right whale mother who is at least 41 years old, was spotted this week with her 10th calf. This optimistic news broke just as one of her previous calves, a 4-year-old juvenile female, was found badly entangled off the coast of North Carolina. Such promising news of a newborn is tempered by yet another young whale getting entangled in a life-threatening situation when fewer than 350 right whales remain. 

This critically endangered population has been in decline since 2011, with New England Aquarium research identifying entanglements in fixed fishing gear as the primary cause. More than 86% of right whales have been entangled at least once, some as many as nine times. In the last 40 years, New England Aquarium scientists documented more than 1,750 entanglements based on scars or attached fishing gear. The severity and lethality of these entanglements have intensified, exacerbated by a significant increase in lobster fishing in Gulf of Maine and Canadian waters, an expansion of fishing into offshore waters and a dramatic increase in rope strengths.    

Declining right whale health overall is also a major contributing factor in the species’ well-being, documented by New England Aquarium co-authored research on whales’ shrinking body lengths, worsening body conditions and females’ inability to nurse and care for calves. North Atlantic right whales born today tend to grow 3 feet shorter than right whales born in 1980, and female right whales who are entangled while nursing are producing smaller calves. Female right whales are also not producing as many calves, and juvenile whales are dying before sexual maturity. 

Another right whale death this week illustrates these scenarios: A male neonate (or newborn) right whale died after being sighted alone, swimming around and under a pier in North Carolina. At his age, he still should have been traveling and nursing with his mother, but no nearby female right whales were spotted by the aerial survey planes, and newborn calves cannot survive long without their mothers. 

Every season, each newborn calf brings hope for the survival of the species, but the species will not survive on hope alone. Only 10 new mother-calf pairs have been spotted this year; the species needs many more calves than that to counteract the rate that they are dying and allow for the species’ recovery. With support from government agencies, legislators and the fishing industry, the human-caused threats to this species can be addressed so that the species can recover.  

To survive, whales need fewer obstacles. Advances in ropeless or “on-demand” fishing technology show promise for reducing or eliminating rope from the ocean and reducing entanglements. But making a generational transformation is challenging and very expensive, requiring significant financial support from the federal government for the fishing industry – and fast.  

It is time for Congress to step up to fund the costly transition to new technologies that will ensure a vibrant future for the fishing industry while saving an endangered species from extinction. If all of us – the fishing industry, engineers, conservationists, scientists and government stakeholders – can continue to collaborate on solutions and implement them as quickly as possible, then the intertwined story of the fishing industry and right whales could be one of adaptation and inspiration. 

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