Climate change, sparse policies endanger right whale population

North Atlantic right whales – a highly endangered species making modest population gains in the past decade – may be imperiled by warming waters and insufficient international protection, according to a new Cornell University analysis published in Global Change Biology.

North Atlantic right whales’ preferred cuisine is copepods that thrive in cool waters, such as the Gulf of Maine, said author Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, who conducted the work as a doctoral student and postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Charles Greene, professor of oceanography and co-author on the paper.

Scientists once relied on continuous plankton sampling to track the copepods, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations’ National Marine Fisheries Service discontinued the program, preventing researchers from observing ecosystem changes as they occur.

In the past several years, a smaller portion of the right whale population has been seen in the Gulf of Maine as it has warmed, and the whales have been spotted farther north than usual, in the Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence, likely in search of the small crustaceans, she said.

Because whales used to be rare in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, northern waterways lack whale protection policies. Without adequate policies the whales are at greater risk from ship traffic and commercial fishing gear.

“Right whales are a highly endangered species with approximately 500 animals remaining,” said Meyer-Gutbrod, who now works at the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This crisis signals a major shift in the whale population’s recovery, corresponding to a loss of 3 percent of the right whale population.”

“There is a very important interaction between climate change and anthropogenic mortality factors,” said Greene. “We must extend whale protections to prevent a major decline in the population.”

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