In a move that puts pressure on federal officials to do more to protect the species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature on Thursday designated North Atlantic right whales as “critically endangered” on its Red List of Threatened Species, the last classification before they’re considered extinct or “gone from the wild.”
The updated status highlights the need to protect a species that is believed to have fewer than 400 animals left, with only about 85 reproductive females, environmental advocates said. The IUCN, a leading global conservation organization, found their population declined by 15 percent between 2011 and 2018 and estimated there are only about 250 mature whales left.
“The dramatic declines of species such as the North Atlantic right whale … highlight the gravity of the extinction crisis,” Jane Smart, global director of IUCN’s biodiversity conservation group, said in a statement. “The world needs to act fast to halt species’ population declines and prevent human-driven extinctions.”
The listing has no legal implications. The Switzerland-based group’s Red List — among the most cited endangered species list in the world — includes 32,441 species, 21 percent of which are considered “critically endangered.” The group had previously listed right whales as endangered.
Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service, which for more than a year has been considering new measures to protect right whales, said they supported the new designation.
“NOAA Fisheries shares the IUCN’s concern for North Atlantic right whales and continues to use its authority … to protect and recover the species,” they wrote in a statement, noting they have added the whales to their Species in the Spotlight initiative, which seeks to provide more federal aid to protect those species.
The IUCN found that right whales are in decline from a “combination of increased mortality due to entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.”
In addition to 31 known deaths of right whales since 2017, the whales have had a lower reproduction rate in recent years, the report found. In 2018, for the first time on record, no calves were born.
Federal officials say there are an additional 10 right whales that have been identified as so significantly injured that they are presumed to have died or be near death.
The report also noted that climate change “appears to be exacerbating the threats” to right whales. Over the past decade, the Gulf of Maine has been warming faster than nearly any other body of water on the planet, scientists say.
“Warmer sea temperatures have likely pushed their main prey species further north during summer, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence [in Canada], where the whales are more exposed to accidental encounters with ships and also at high risk of entanglement in crab-pot ropes,” IUCN officials said.
Environmental advocates said the designation should serve as a “wake-up call” for policymakers.
“Deaths from fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes are entirely preventable, yet we’ve responded with half-measures at best,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, one of several groups that has sued the Fisheries Service to do more to protect right whales.
A federal judge ruled in April that the Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to reduce the risk of right whales becoming entangled in millions of lobster lines. The judge has yet to rule on what the remedy should be for that violation.
Officials at the New England Aquarium, which has spent years lobbying for protections of right whales, said “it is imperative that the United States and Canada work together to prevent North Atlantic right whales from becoming the first large whale species to go extinct.”
“For every whale we keep from a preventable human-caused death, we preserve a lineage of North Atlantic right whales for future generations,” they said.