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Right whale ‘one step from extinction’, global group finds

The North Atlantic right whale is now considered “critically endangered” by The International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Six of the endangered right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in June 2019, prompting scientists and conservationists to call for a swift response to protect the endangered species. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

A worldwide conservation organization says the status of a rare species of whale has worsened to the point where it deserves greater attention from the global environmental community. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said Thursday it is moving the North Atlantic right whale from “endangered” to “critically endangered” on its Red List of jeopardized species.

The Switzerland-based organization’s Red List is one of the most-cited endangered species lists in the world. The IUCN says the total population of the whales declined by about 15% from 2011 to 2018. Researchers estimate the population to be about 400 animals now, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The North Atlantic right whale has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970.

“The dramatic declines of species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale included in today’s IUCN Red List update highlight the gravity of the extinction crisis,” Dr. Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group, said. “Saving the fast-growing number of threatened species from extinction requires transformational change, supported by action to implement national and international agreements. The world needs to act fast to halt species’ population declines and prevent human-driven extinctions, with an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework which the upcoming IUCN Congress will help define.”

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The IUCN says the North Atlantic right whale is “one step from extinction,” with fewer than 250 mature whales estimated to be alive at the end of 2018. The IUCN says the decline is being driven by a combination of increased mortality due to entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes, and a lower reproduction rate compared to previous years.

“Of 30 confirmed human-caused deaths or serious injuries of right whales between 2012 and 2016, 26 were due to entanglement.”

NOAA Fisheries has designated two critical habitat areas to provide important feeding, nursery, and calving habitat for North Atlantic right whales:

  • Off the coast of New England (foraging area).
  • Off the southeast U.S. coast from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to below Cape Canaveral, Florida (calving area).

The ICUN says climate change appears to be exacerbating the threats to the species.

“Warmer sea temperatures have likely pushed their main prey species further north during summer, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the whales are more exposed to accidental encounters with ships and also at high risk of entanglement in crab-pot ropes.”

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