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The Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature changes the status of the right whale "critically endangered", the last stop before extinction.
With its population still struggling to recover from more than three centuries of hunting, the North Atlantic right whale is now "one step away from extinction," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The IUCN last week moved the status of the whale on its Red List from "endangered" to "critically endangered," the last stop before the species is considered extinct in the wild.
The change in status reflects the fact that fewer than 250 mature individuals are likely to remain in a population of roughly 400. Although grim, scientists and conservationists expressed hope that this move could help accelerate protections for these diminishing giants.
"As scientists, we have been working for many years under the idea that North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered," said David Wiley, research coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank's National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. “The great thing about this new designation is that it brings them back to the front and center. Hopefully that brings them to the top of political consciousness. "
Moira Brown, senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute, who has worked on right whales for more than 30 years, said: “For an organization like IUCN, which weighs a lot of information when they make these changes, like the status of the right whale, it brings international recognition. It's an added layer of: we're not just blowing smoke here, this animal is really in trouble. "
Plankton was often found to seep unhurriedly onto the ocean's surface, the right whale species was once heavily attacked by whalers - their slow speed made them easy to hunt and they floated when killed, thanks to the thick blubber .
That slow feeding on the surface today causes these whales to get hit by boat propellers or turn fatally snarling at fishing gear. According to the IUCN, of the 30 deaths or serious injuries to North Atlantic right whales recorded between 2012 and 2016, 26 were caused by entanglement of fishing gear.
As a result, many scientists support stricter regulations on the fishing industry, an issue that draws the attention of fishing communities: The new regulations could mean that fishermen must bear the cost of improving equipment, and they are often concerned that these changes will also reduce your catch. The 2019 National Marine Fisheries Service attempt to reduce gear in the water led the Maine Lobster Fishermen's Association to withdraw from regional protection measures.
"I think it's sometimes described as: You have whales or you can fish," said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. "What we're trying to say is that you can still fish if you can do it in a way that's safer for whales."
Knowlton noted that the growing entanglement problem may be due in part to the stronger ropes adopted in the 1990s, making it difficult for the whales to release. Now he is encouraging anglers to use lines with weaker breaking strength.
Looking for colder waters
Climate change also plays an important role. Since 1990, the North Atlantic right whale's main feeding ground, the Gulf of Maine, has warmed three times faster than the rest of the world's oceans.
The US and Canadian governments enforce seasonal speed limits for vessels in areas where right whales frequent. But whales are changing their usual places as they seek cooler waters, taking them to places without these speed limits. Warming waters also make it harder for right whales to find food, which could explain their unusually low birth rate.
Additionally, climate change has triggered a lobster boom in northern New England and eastern Canada, which has brought more gear into whale habitat.
There are reasons to celebrate small victories for right whales, such as the birth of 10 calves this season. But these victories often go hand-in-hand with heartbreak: In June, one such calf was discovered dead in a boat attack in New Jersey.
In general, researchers are well aware that time is not on the whales' side, as deaths exceed the speed of regulatory action.
"It's a very slow process, and keeping the public engaged and keeping the funds going is difficult when you know you won't see results for 20 years," Wiley said. “That is not exclusive to right whales, but we are living inhe moment when things get better or continue to get worse ”.
He added: “The fact that our activity is leading them to extinction is something that is not acceptable to us as human beings. We are better than that ”.