Giant 'urban' mammal facing extinction in next five years

Michael Dahlstrom
·News and Video Producer
·4-min read

Experts warn that the North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction, and unless urgent action is taken they will reach a point of no return in five years.

The large marine mammals have been upgraded to being critically endangered on the IUCN Red List which lists threatened species.

Numbers were decimated by hunting last century, with whaling vessels targeting them due to their high oil content and docile nature.

Close up of a North Atlantic whale tangled in fishing ropes and plastic
A North Atlantic whale tangled in plastic fishing ropes. Source: Nick Hawkins via IFAW

Despite a ban on hunting the species, IUCN assessor Dr Justin Cooke said on releasing his report that the whale’s numbers had been heading downhill for 10 years.

The mammal is thought to have lost 10 per cent of its entire population since 2017, with the shipping and fishing industries believed by conservationists to be responsible for the majority of deaths.

‘Urban whale’ living in ‘busy New York-style environment’

Observed off the Australian shoreline, the southern right whale is estimated to number 10,000 individuals, while the population of its Atlantic cousin, by contrast, is thought to be just 400, with only 100 of them breeding females.

With climate change impacting on food sources, North Atlantic right whales are being forced to migrate into busy shipping channels in Canada where mariners haven’t had to negotiate the animals before.

As a result, the mammals are increasingly been caught in fishing line and being struck by boats, according to Patrick Ramage from International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Mr Ramage points to a scientific belief suggesting that the noise from shipping is also thought to be frustrating the animals’ ability to communicate and hunt for food.

Tourists watching southern right whales in South Australia.
Southern right whales (pictured) are thought to number 10,000, while their North Atlantic cousins are believed to have a population of 400. Source: Getty

“It's caused scientists in this part of the world to refer to the North Atlantic right whale as the urban whale,” Mr Ramage told Yahoo News Australia from his US office.

“Because it's almost like walking down a busy New York, London or Sydney Street and the hazards posed to pedestrians from moving traffic.

“So the comparison is apt, but it’s a very difficult situation for these whales.”

Plastic fishing rope injuring North Atlantic right whales

Like many marine species, plastic is having a big impact on North Atlantic right whales, but despite our oceans being increasingly flooded with it, they’re not dying not from swallowing the substance.

Fishing ropes that were once made from natural materials are now forged out of plastic, and these near unbreakable lines are cutting deep into their flesh, causing death and injury.

Now 83 per cent of the remaining 400 animals show scars from the rope.

A dingy filled with rescuers heads towards an North Atlantic whale calf caught in rope.
Rescuers head towards a North Atlantic right whale calf tangled in nets. Source: IFAW

“Those are scars on their bodies from where ropes have cut into their flesh,” Mr Ramage said.

“For those unfortunate enough to be seriously entangled, they are unable to free themselves.

“The whale essentially spirals and tries to get out of this gear that it feels on its body, entangling itself worse as it does so, and ultimately fins, or part of the tail can be severed.

“It was less of an issue when it was hemp rope, because it would just rot and fall off, or the whale would be strong enough to break free.

“With this plastic polypropylene line, either the animal is starving to death because its mouth is wrapped closed and can't feed properly, or (the rope) cutting more and into its flesh, causing infection or loss of limbs.

“It's just a gruesome and horrible way to die, arguably much worse than being dispatched with a harpoon as in days of yore.”

Race to prevent whale extinction

A glimmer of hope remains for North Atlantic right whales, with the Canadian government adopting ship speed restrictions around some whale paths.

IFAW have developed an app with Apple and Google which they say will help mariners track and avoid migrating whales.

In the US, conservation groups are now pressuringCongress to develop new technologies to reduce human impact on the mammals.

This would involve adopting fishing equipment that eliminates the vertical ropes responsible for many of the whale injuries.

This year, of the 10 calves born this season, two have been killed in the US, and with a minimum yearly birthrate of 15 to 20 required to prevent extinction, the whale is in serious trouble.

Unlike land-based animals, breeding large marine mammals in captivity is not a viable option, and so if the North Atlantic right whale becomes extinct in the wild, it will be no more.

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