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IFAW issues dire warning on North Atlantic right whales

North Atlantic Right Whales.
Jessica Taylor/New England Aquarium photo.
North Atlantic Right Whales. - Jessica Taylor/New England Aquarium photo. - Contributed

Study looks into 70 deaths over 16 years

With estimations placing the world population of North Atlantic right whales at just 411 animals, the International Fund for Animal Welfare stresses the high number of deaths documented in recent years is not sustainable. 

The dire warning accompanies a scientific research paper on the causes of 70 North Atlantic right whale mortalities that occurred between Florida and the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the years 2003 to 2018.   

Authors of the study were from the IFAW, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Marine Mammal Pathology Services, Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation omission, Atlantic Veterinary College, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Marine Animal Response Society, Zoo de Granby, Université de Montréal, Saint Mary’s University, NOAA Fisheries, New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

The retrospective review, led by Dr. Sarah Sharp, a veterinarian with the IFAW, found that in the 43 cases in which cause of death was identified, none were from natural causes. Gear entanglement was identified as the cause in 22 of the cases and 16 of the whales died as a result of vessel strikes.  

“This is clear evidence that these animals are unable to live full, productive lives because they are dying prematurely as the result of human activities,” said Sharp. 

The veterinarian said the deaths are preventable if both the United States and Canada immediately enact targeted and aggressive mitigation measures.  

The research paper offers key recommendations, including employing more effective gear modifications, including ropeless fishing, expanding vessel speed restrictions to include larger swaths of North Atlantic right whale habitat, implementing dynamic management strategies including fisheries closures and vessel speed restrictions when right whales are present,  co-ordinated marking of gear for better monitoring of where entanglements occur and an expanded survey of offshore habitats for NARW carcasses for more accurate mortality statistics  and cause of death. 

“With a population this small and declining birth rates, the loss of even one individual represents a major blow to the recovery of the species as a whole,” said Sharp. “The data tells a very compelling story, one which we need to turn around now to bring the species back from the brink of extinction." 


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