Concern as 10 per cent of critically endangered whales enter deadly shipping lane

With just 360 North Atlantic right whales remaining, experts are concerned about the 31 animals feeding around the shipping zone.

Close to 10 per cent of a critically endangered whale population could have wandered into a dangerous industrial shipping lane off the US coast. Ship strikes along with fishing gear entanglements are the greatest threat to the remaining 360 North Atlantic right whales, and five have already likely been killed since December.

The world’s largest ocean protection organisation has warned the US East Coast has become a “graveyard” for the species, and the 31 individuals counted feeding in the Massachusetts shipping lane is an unwelcome situation.

“It’s very concerning,” Oceana marine biologist Julia Singer told Yahoo News. “We are worried we might see more vessel strikes," she said.

Four aerial images of the North Atlantic right whales.
10 per cent of the remaining North Atlantic right whale population has been photographed swimming into high-speed shipping lane. Source: New England Aquarium/NMFS permit #25739

The whales were spotted during an aerial survey by the New England Aquarium on February 20. With the species' numbers dwindling, the whales became protected by two types of slow zones along the US East Coast in 2008, one is voluntary, and the other is seasonal and mandatory.

Why aren't the North Atlantic right whales better protected?

Because the whales are in a voluntary zone, the onus is on vessels to slow down, and that’s got conservationists worried. It is a concern because even in the mandatory zone, researchers from Oceana found 79 per cent of ships were speeding. It raised similar concerns about ships speeding in 2023.

A map of Massachusetts showing where the whales have been located.
The whales have been spotted off the coast of Massachusetts across busy shipping lanes. Source: NOAA

Among the whales believed to have recently been killed were two juveniles. There are only 70 breeding females alive today, and some experts predict the species will be extinct in our lifetime.

“Scientists estimate that losing just one whale a year from human causes is enough to set back the species and not allow it to recover,” Singer said. “So already seeing five whales that are either dead or likely to die is a terrible statistic for this early in the year.”

In 2022, the US government proposed new vessel speed regulations, including updating the voluntary regulations to be mandatory when whales are sighted. Those rules which Singer says would give the whales a “chance at survival” are yet to be finalised.

More on ocean protection

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.