Warming Arctic waters are driving critically endangered North Atlantic right whales into unregulated seas, where they often get tangled in fishing nets and wounded by boat propellers.
The whales have been pushed from their traditional and protected habitat in the Gulf of Maine, according to a report led by Cornell University and the University of South Carolina, published in the journal Oceanography on Aug. 31.
They will become extinct if their protection isn’t secured, according to the report.
The species has fewer than 400 individuals remaining, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states.
Dramatic video shows the NOAA crew untangling a whale caught in heavy netting.
The Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) as among the most endangered whales in the world.
“Most of the warming in the Gulf of Maine is not coming from the atmosphere or ocean surface, as one may think,” said senior author Charles Greene, professor emeritus in Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “It comes from invading water on slopes hundreds of feet below sea level, forcing the right whales to abandon their traditional habitat.”
The slope of water entering the Gulf of Maine derives its heat from the Gulf Stream, which has radically changed course over the last decade.
“Due to a warming climate, the [large system of ocean currents that carry warm water from the tropics northward] is slowing down, causing the Gulf Stream to move north, injecting warmer and saltier slope water into the Gulf of Maine,” Green said.
Warmer waters are also less favorable for copepods — small crustaceans that are the right whales’ favorite food.
As a result, the whales have abandoned their traditional hunting grounds in the Gulf of Maine and head north toward cooler waters in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
However, the Gulf of St Lawrence lacks regulations protecting the whales from being struck by ships and entangled in fishing nets.
“Right whales continue to die each year,” said the report’s lead author, Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. “Protective policies must be strengthened immediately before this species declines past the point of no-return.”
Researchers and conservationists favor new policies that regulate speed limits on shipping vessels, rope-free fishing gear and increase funding for monitoring to aid the right whale’s survival.
Edited by Judith Isacoff and Fern Siegel
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