The North Atlantic right whale is just “one step from extinction,” according to a new report that classifies the species as critically endangered.
The classification is a shift from the animals’ previous listing as simply endangered on the Red List of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimated in a statement this week that fewer than 250 mature North Atlantic right whales remained by the end of 2018.
The conservation organization chalked up the species’s decline to lower reproduction rates and more deadly encounters with ships and fishing gear. Climate change is fueling the latter, as warmer temperatures drive the whales farther north, where they’re more likely to wind up entangled in fishing lines and ropes or to be struck by ships.
Scientists spoke out about their fears for the species’s survival last summer after six whales were found dead off the Canadian coast in one month. Collisions with ships killed at least three of them — including one female known to be the mother of eight and grandmother of two.
Underwater noise poses another threat to the species because it interferes with the animals’ ability to communicate with one another.
North Atlantic right whales live in Atlantic waters, primarily close to coasts or the continental shelf, ranging from waters off the southern United States to those off northern Canada and Europe. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified two areas of “critical habitat”: one near the southeast U.S., where the whales give birth, and another near New England, where they forage and feed.
But efforts to protect the whales could draw major opposition from New England’s lobster industry, which has found a friend in President Donald Trump, The New York Times reported. The industry is hurting from the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s trade war with China and doesn’t want to see stricter regulations on top of that.
“A lot of the dynamic was bad anyway, and under Trump, it just got worse,” Peter Corkeron, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, told the Times. “People are terrified to do anything about right whales at the moment.”
During his visit to Maine last month, Trump signed a proclamation that opened the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument ― comprising nearly 5,000 square miles of ocean off the East Coast ― to commercial fishing. Conservationists said at the time that the move would threaten right whales, along with deep-sea coral and numerous species of migratory fish.
In addition to the whales, the new report listed 33 lemur species and the European hamster as critically endangered. Hunting and deforestation are the primary threats to the lemurs, which are native to Madagascar. The European hamster ― a wild hamster species whose range includes parts of France, Germany, Eastern Europe and Siberia ― has seen drastic drops in reproduction rates.
The reasons the hamsters are having fewer offspring aren’t totally clear, according to the IUCN. Possible causes include industrial development, climate change, changes in agricultural practices and light pollution.