North Atlantic right whales have been reclassified as critically endangered

International Union for Conservation of Nature says there are only 400 individual right whales remaining, with breeding females making up less than one-quarter of the population.

EAST COAST—The North Atlantic right whale species was recently re-classified from endangered to critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it was reported on July 9.

The IUCN classification complements the high-risk categories the North American right whales are already listed on: “endangered” per the Endangered Species Act and “strategic and depleted” per the Marine Mammal Protection Act.” Both classifications are the highest possible risk categories under those respective federal laws.

IUCN’s classification change – which is part of the organization’s Red List Category – does not have a direction relationship with classifications under the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA Fisheries, however, stated it “shares the IUCN’s concern for North Atlantic right whales.”

“We continue to use our authority under the MMPA and ESA to protect and recover the species,” NOAA Fisheries staff stated.

NOAA Fisheries staff added there are only 400-some remaining right whales remaining, with fewer than 100 of them as breeding females.

“Research published in 2017 made it clear that after two decades of slow recovery, the population began declining in 2010,” NOAA Fisheries staff said. “This decline was exacerbated by the 17 right whale mortalities in Canadian and U.S. waters in 2017. This prompted NOAA Fisheries to declare an unusual mortality event for North Atlantic right whales.”

Fishing fear entanglements and vessel strikes are the leading causes of death, according to NOAA Fisheries.

A North Atlantic right whale recovery plan was established in 2005; the plan aims to reduce vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements, protect whale habitats and, according to NOAA Fisheries, “maximize efforts to free entangled right whales.”

Volunteer teams exist within the NOAA Fisheries’ network of states on the East Coast; the teams respond to right whale entanglements and attempt to free them from the gear whenever possible.

The right whale population is also monitored via aerial surveys.

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