The climate crisis could deal a fatal blow to the endangered North Atlantic right whale as plummeting plankton populations drive the mammals north into unprotected jurisdictions.
Scientists have long suspected a link between global heating and a sudden decline in the species’ well-being. Now, research published in the journal Oceanography “presents the strongest case yet,” writes The New York Times.
In 2010, the plankton population in the Gulf of Maine—a critical feeding ground for the North Atlantic right whale—crashed due to a sudden spike in ocean temperatures. In the new study, an interdisciplinary team analyzed data on plankton, marine conditions, and sightings of North Atlantic right whales between that event and 2017, a year when many of the whales migrated in search of food to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where there are no protections to safeguard them from fishing gear and ships.
“They moved so fast that our policies didn’t move with them,” study co-author and University of South Carolina quantitative marine ecologist Erin Meyer-Gutbrod told the Times.
When a whale encounters fishing gear, “the ropes can drown them, sever parts of their bodies, or lead to slow deaths from impaired feeding or swimming,” the Times explains. Tragic proof of this risk: the February death of an 11-year-old whale named Cottontail off the coast of South Carolina, four months after researchers spotted him “with his head and mouth entangled in a line that trailed behind him for three or four body lengths.”
Worse, these dangers are being paired with low birth rates. In good conditions, the majestic right whales can grow to 16 metres and live to be 70 years old. Today, the whales just aren’t getting enough to eat, which means they’re struggling to bring viable calves into the world. Only 356 North Atlantic right whales are thought to remain.
“We’re slowing their births and we’re increasing their deaths,” Meyer-Gutbrod said. “You don’t have to be a super mathematician to guess what that change is going to cause.”
The Canadian government has responded by limiting the speed of ships in the seaway, while on the U.S. side laws are being put in place requiring weaker fishing lines that the whales can break free from.
“Conservationists reacted with disappointment to the long-awaited rules, criticizing them for falling far short of what the whales need,” the Times writes.