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Updated Population Estimates Show ‘Grim’ Outlook For Endangered Right Whale

The latest population estimate for the endangered North Atlantic right whale indicates the species' recent decline has quickened - with at least 30 fewer animals alive now than there were at the end of 2016.

An updated estimate by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientists pegged the number of North Atlantic right whales alive in 2016 in the low 440s. Scientists now say it’s likely that there are not more than 411 left.

The calculation is based on a trove of statistical data, observations of individual animals and a wave of observed mortalities, with no newborn whales observed in the most recent calving season.

“It continues to be what I call grim,” says Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a whale specialist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

Mayo is one of many observers who say without new action, the trend line for the whales will lead to extinction within a few decades. He adds, however, that while there were no newborn whales observed last calving season, there is hope that some 100 fertile females who’ve had an extra year to rest and feed will be more productive this winter.

“And they haven’t been doing anything with regard to pregnancy for the past couple of years. So I anticipate that we’re going to see a real substantial burst. It’s going to need it to make up for the hollow that we’re in,” Mayo says.

Depending on what action federal regulators decide is warranted, Maine’s lobstermen may have to contend with costly new gear changes that aim to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled in trap rope. Action on the issue is expected early next year.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell stories of a changing region.

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.
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.
MICHAEL DWYER / ASSOCIATED PRESS