By Natalie C.
As Spring arrives and Earth Day comes to a close, it is more important than ever that we stay informed on the statuses of species around the globe who are facing extinction. One such species that resides close to home is the North Atlantic right whale, who play a vital role in their ecosystem, making the danger that they face all the more alarming and tragic.
What are the North Atlantic right whales and why are they important?
North Atlantic right whales are a type of baleen whale native to Atlantic coastal waters, mainly off the coasts of New England and Canada. Their diet primarily consists of copepods – or tiny crustaceans – which they feed off of by “straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, which act like a sieve” (NOAA).
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, North Atlantic right whales are vital to their ecosystem’s food chain; in addition, their waste is essential in stimulating the growth of phytoplankton which “pull carbon from the atmosphere” to provide a “cleaner and healthier breathing environment” for all organisms – including us humans!
Why are the North Atlantic right whales going extinct?
North Atlantic right whales are “one of the world’s most endangered large whale species” as there are, to date, fewer than 400 of their kind left, with less than one-fourth being made up of female whales who are able to reproduce (NOAA).
Their endangerment has been present for centuries as, up until the early 1890s, the whale-hunting business was booming, causing species such as the North Atlantic right whales to be hunted “to the brink of extinction” (NOAA). While the whales have made a significant recovery since this time – after whaling ceased being a threat – the four main modern forms of danger that they face – climate change, ocean noise, vessel strikes and entanglements – remain largely human-caused:
Because of climate change – which only worsens with every passing year – the waters that North Atlantic right whales reside in are warming significantly, causing their prey – and, in turn, the whales themselves – to move to cooler, coastal regions that happen to be more populated and, therefore, less protected from the threats that follow.
Ocean noise originates from human activities such as shipping, boating and construction and can greatly disrupt the communication, feeding and mating of right whales.
Vessel strikes occur when a ship collides with a right whale, the damages sustained from the ships’ hulls or propellers causing serious injuries and, in many cases, death.
Entanglements occur when whales collide and get trapped in fishing gear – oftentimes rope that leads to lobster traps at the bottom of the ocean – causing immense stress, pain and, in many female whales, decreased fertility. To date, entanglements prove to be “one of the greatest threats to the North Atlantic right whales” as it is estimated that over 85% of right whales have been entangled “at least once” in their lifetime (NOAA).
What can I do to save the North Atlantic right whales?
Ropeless for Right Whales – an organization dedicated to fighting for the right whales and an amazing source of information – has a petition on their website that you can sign to encourage lawmakers to “take immediate action to prevent further lethal vessel strikes” on right whales: https://ropelessforrightwhales.com/
Besides signing petitions, the best thing that you can do, dear reader, is to educate yourself even further on these amazing organisms and the danger that they face. Bow Seat – a nonprofit organization that advocates for ocean conservation through art-ivism – has a page on their website that lists out various resources and inspiration for students and teachers alike on the fight for the right whales: https://bowseat.org/programs/healthy-whale-healthy-ocean/resources/
In addition, I highly recommend watching the 2021 documentary Entangled, which chronicles the recent efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whales and how the coastal lobster industry has been impacted by these efforts. The film offers an unbiased look at both sides of the fight for the right whales, while providing top-notch visuals and invaluable information on the right whales themselves and the movement for their survival. This film is inspiring and motivated me to create not only this article, but also my own artwork in an effort to spread the word on the fight to save the North Atlantic right whales!
“North Atlantic Right Whale.” NOAA, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale. Accessed 2 Apr. 2021.
“North Atlantic Right Whale.” WWF.CA, 20 Nov. 2020, wwf.ca/species/north-atlantic-right-whales/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.