You may have heard that Earth’s current sixth mass extinction stems from human causes, but what does this actually look like? I present to you Exhibit A: North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), a species disappearing at an alarming rate. More than 2 percent of the entire North Atlantic right whale population has died in 2019, with the population now hovering around 400. Of these remaining whales, there are an estimated fewer than 100 breeding females alive. Hope for North Atlantic right whales is dwindling.
I have been following the plight of North Atlantic right whales with a team of students in my cohort for the past two semesters at Columbia University through the Environmental Science and Policy workshop program. In teams, students analyse the science behind proposed environmental legislation in the summer semester before focusing on policy implications in the fall. My team concentrated on H.R.1568 or “The Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) North Atlantic Right Whales Act of 2019.”
The species was initially decimated by whaling; their name stems from being considered the “right” whale to hunt since they float after death. Protections for the species were established by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1949, but North Atlantic right whales never fully recovered as a result of ongoing human threats. The primary causes of North Atlantic right whale mortality today are ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear from the shipping and fishing industries, respectively. Research shows that more than 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetime. Ocean noise is an additional threat that leads to higher stress rates for whales, which can contribute to decreased lifespans. MORE
Header image: North Atlantic right whale and calf. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.