Concerned scientists are sounding the alarm over the loss of six rare North Atlantic right whales off the Canadian coast in a single month. There are only some 400 of the animals left on Earth, and fewer than 100 of them are females of reproductive age.
The six, including at least four females, were found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence north of New England, report officials of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Researchers believe at least three of them were killed in collisions with ships. One of them was the mother of eight, grandmother of two and 40 years old when she was found dead from a ship strike.
The whales also die — often excruciating deaths — when they become entangled in fishing gear.
“Honestly, I don’t have the words,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia, , executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, told The Atlantic. “It’s devastating. There’s now more people working on right whales than there are right whales left.”
The deaths are such a significant toll on the population that researchers fear it will soon be too late to prevent extinction.
The population has been hard hit in the last few years. The animals appear to leaving areas like Cape Cod following food sources moving north because of warming oceans. As they follow the food, they move into increasingly crowded shipping zones or areas with fewer shipping restrictions to protect them. Seventeen animals were killed in 2017 and only five calves were born.
“Animals like whales that have to figure out where their food is, they have to figure out a new environment as they go,” Nick Record, senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, told the Independent. “You can almost think of the whales like climate migration.”
Ten years ago the U.S. implemented a 10-knot speed restriction on ships in areas where the whales were spotted. Canada is now beginning to expand and strengthen similar restrictions in the St. Lawrence Gulf in the wake of the deaths.
“The government of Canada takes the protection, conservation, and recovery of endangered species very seriously,” said a statement from the Canadian government last month.
Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told the Canadian Press Thursday that officials are considering still other measures. “We are going to have to be dynamic in terms of evolving measures to ensure that we are appropriately putting in a place a precautionary approach to protect these endangered whales,” he said.
Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, called the situation an “urgent conservation crisis” that has reached a “critical point.”
He is calling for a meeting with the Canadian government to request “immediate action to provide comprehensive protection” for the whales. “Preventing any additional deaths of North Atlantic right whales is our highest priority,” he said.
The whales got their name because they were long considered the “right” whales to hunt, so their population was decimated. Despite protections over the years, the population never fully rebounded.