Today is the inaugural Right Whale Day, an effort by the state of Massachusetts to raise awareness of the plight of the North Atlantic right whale.

It could not have come at a more critical time. More than a third of the species has been lost since 2010; of the roughly 340 remaining whales, fewer than 70 are females who are able to reproduce.

A number of human-caused threats, such as vessel strikes and fishing gear that entangles right whales, are pushing the species closer to the extinction tipping point.

Sadly, right whales are also entangled in and exploited by political and economic interests – potentially as lethal as the one million fishing lines they must swim through as they migrate along the Eastern Seaboard and into Canadian waters.

The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act require the federal government to seek solutions to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and to ensure species recovery.

Unfortunately, in December, Maine lawmakers successfully circumvented these provisions by adding a last-minute rider to federal spending legislation, which delayed for six years new federal fishing regulations aimed at preventing right whale entanglements. Not only did this move undermine two of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws, it set a terrible precedent for the future of whale protection. Additionally, the vessel strike reduction rule proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (instituting a 10-knot speed limit in areas where whales are spotted) is facing fierce pushback from recreational and commercial vessel interests.


Anyone who has seen photos of entangled whales cannot help but acknowledge that this is a serious animal welfare issue. Ropes linked to buoys on the surface of the water are embedded in a whale’s skin, leading to excruciating injuries, and, in some cases, a long and painful death from starvation. Vessel strike photos are equally grim, showing blunt force trauma and lacerations that cause chronic infections; damage to blubber, muscle and bone; amputations; and even death.

It is undeniable that nearly 100 North Atlantic right whales have been documented as killed, injured or in poor health in the last five years, and roughly 86% of right whales bear scars consistent with having been entangled at least once. Female right whales are especially vulnerable, and are far less likely to give birth following an entanglement incident.

In a recent paper, Dr. Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute noted that the well-known right whale Snow Cone – born in 2005 and now one of the last reproductive females – had suffered the loss of 12 of her 23 immediate relatives, including her mother and father. Her first calf died in 2020 after he was struck twice by vessels, and her newest calf has not been seen in months.

For the species as a whole, there is still cause for hope – as long as our leaders stop sidelining science-based management strategies. In addition to fishing area closures and a reduction in the number of lines and traps in right whale habitat, the use of ropeless fishing systems (also known as pop-up fishing gear) can significantly diminish the risk from fishing lines used by the lobster and crab industries, while still allowing fishers to earn a living. However, this transition needs greater political and financial support so that fishing communities are not forced to absorb all the costs involved.

This Right Whale Day, even small actions can help save the North Atlantic right whale. Seafood consumers can tell local supermarkets or restaurants that they prefer lobster and crab caught by whale-safe methods. Citizens can call on policymakers to support the 10-knot vessel speed rule, and for increased funding for right whale conservation efforts, including more grants to fund the transition to ropeless gear. Additional ideas can be found at

If we are to save this species, every day needs to be Right Whale Day.

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