Aquarium calls on U.S. and Canada to take stronger action to save critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

FILE – In this March 28, 2018 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Interstate fishing managers are starting the process of trying to reduce the amount of lobster fishing gear off the East Coast in an attempt to help save a declining species of the rare whale. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, that it will consider options designed to reduce vertical lobster fishing lines in the water by as much as 40 percent. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

The New England Aquarium is calling on the U.S. and Canada to take stronger action to save now critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The call comes after the International Union for Conservation of Nature on Thursday moved right whales up from endangered to critically endangered status, making them the only large whale species in the world with this distinction.

“We are running out of time to save these magnificent yet very vulnerable animals,” Vikki N. Spruill, the aquarium’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Whaling nearly killed right whales in the early 1900s. Science tells us that we need to take immediate and urgent steps to prevent that from happening now.”

With only 400 right whales left in the world, fears of their extinction are growing among scientists as the IUCN, an international body that monitors endangered animals, upgraded the whales on their Red List of Threatened Species.

Research scientists at the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life are recommending ship speeds in all United States and Canadian waters be reduced to ten knots or less for vessels of all sizes.

Studies show that alerting mariners to the presence of North Atlantic right whales and requesting a voluntary speed reduction does not work, while mandatory and enforced speed restrictions are known to be effective, according to the aquarium.

The risks to North Atlantic right whales from entanglements in fishing gear also must be lowered by reducing vertical lines in the water and modifying gear to prevent entanglements, the aquarium said.

More than 40 years of research by New England Aquarium scientists has found that these whales are killed and grievously injured by entanglements with fishing gear that prevent them from feeding, cause them to drag thousands of pounds of gear for thousands of miles, cause unnecessary and inhumane pain and stress, and result in the whales drowning.

“North Atlantic right whales are dying needlessly at the hands of humans,” the aquarium said in a statement. “It is imperative that the United States and Canada work together to prevent North Atlantic right whales from becoming the first large whale species to go extinct. For every whale we keep from a preventable human-caused death, we preserve a lineage of North Atlantic right whales for future generations.”

The New England Aquarium has been studying right whales since 1980, when an aquarium research team unexpectedly discovered 25 North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy, between the maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Before the discovery, scientists believed the right whale was nearly extinct.

Aquarium fieldwork, which includes more than 35 years of uninterrupted surveys in the Bay of Fundy, has provided invaluable knowledge about right whale behavior, habitat use and the impact of human activity on the population.

The Aquarium also is a founding member of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, an internationally recognized model for single-species consortia, and recently released an updated edition of the book “Disappearing Giants: The North Atlantic Right Whale.”