The latest official population estimate for the world's most endangered species of whale is grim.
A group of international experts recently confirmed there were about 340 surviving North Atlantic right whales as of last year — down from 348 recorded in 2020. Though the rate of decline has slowed, researchers say these huge animals are still struggling to stave off extinction.
Only 15 calves were born in 2022, far below the average of 24 reported in the early 2000s. And there were no first-time mothers this season, which supports research showing a downward trend in the number of females capable of breeding.
Despite these gloomy findings, some remarkably good news emerged in October ahead of the annual meeting of the Right Whale Consortium, which brought together researchers, fishing industry representatives and conservationists in New Bedford, Mass.
Sean Brillant, a senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, says big strides are being made in the use of a relatively new technology designed to prevent whales from getting entangled in fishing gear — one of the leading causes of right whale deaths.
"This year was a big success story," Brillant said in a recent interview.
The technology is known as ropeless or on-demand gear. While traditional lobster and crab traps are dropped to the ocean floor and later retrieved by hauling up long ropes that hang from floating buoys, on-demand gear doesn't use so-called running lines or buoys. The traps are found using an electronic homing device — a kind of virtual buoy — and they're retrieved using remotely inflated spools of rope or lift bags.
Elimination of floating gear could drastically reduce the risk of entanglements, which account for 82 per cent of documented right whale deaths, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Falmouth, Mass.
Brillant says his organization and a few others had great success this year lending ropeless gear to Canadian snow crab fishers whose fishing grounds were otherwise closed when right whales showed up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Canadian Wildlife Federation provided gear and training to 10 harvesters from Tignish, P.E.I., who eventually hauled in 167,000 kilograms of crab using ropeless gear in closed zones.
Meanwhile, the Acadian Crabbers Association in Shippagan, N.B., had 20 harvesters fishing in closed zones with ropeless gear. They landed 181,000 kilograms of crab.
"We were able to accomplish a lot," Brillant said. "The involvement of the fish harvesters is the cause for our success."
Moira Brown, senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute, said it is encouraging to see how many people are working on ropeless technology. "With this groundswell of support ... we're going to try to keep this animal around," she said in an interview from Welshpool, N.B.
She stressed that the downward dip in the population last year does not constitute a trend, and she drew attention to the fact that it's been three years since there's been a confirmed right whale death in Canadian waters — though scientists estimate that one third of right whale deaths are never detected.
As for ropeless traps, Brown also pointed to the success of crab fishers using the new gear in eastern New Brunswick.
"This all demonstrates that ropeless is real," said Brown, who started working with right whales in 1985 when there were only about 200 left in the North Atlantic. "This population has already demonstrated that it can recover if we reduce the mortality that we're causing."
Last summer, the Canadian Whale Institute, a registered charity, assembled a collection of ropeless gear from eight manufacturers and packed it into a utility trailer that was taken to 13 fishing communities in the Maritimes.
"We would just show up in a harbour or at meetings of fishing associations, mostly in P.E.I and New Brunswick," Brown said. "We let them put their hands on it and think about it."
The move toward ropeless gear is a step in the right direction, says Kristen Monsell, legal director for the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tuscon, Ariz.
"A lot of progress has been made in a very short amount of time, particularly the work in Canada," Monsell said in an interview. "Fishermen are saying it works .... It is the future solution to the whale entanglement problem that's afflicting not only right whales, but whales throughout our oceans."
It's believed the right whale population peaked at about 21,000 before aggressive hunting drastically reduced their numbers. By the 1920s, fewer than 100 remained. After a hunting ban was imposed in 1935, the population grew to 483 by 2010 but then started to decline again.
In 2018, the Canadian government introduced a series of measures to protect the whales after 17 of them died in Canadian and American waters the year before — mostly from entanglements and collisions with boats.
The sudden spike in the death toll came after researchers confirmed that many of the whales had changed their spring and summer migration route by heading farther north into the Gulf of St. Lawrence instead of staying in the northern Gulf of Maine, Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin off southwestern Nova Scotia.
Among other things, the federal government increased aerial surveillance of the gulf, imposed slower speed limits for vessels in the shipping lanes and temporarily suspended fishing in some areas.
Despite the new rules and the increasing use of ropeless gear, it's clear the fishing industry has a long way to go if the right whales are to survive. Five right whales were spotted this year entangled in fishing gear. Four of the entanglements were new.
In late September, the New England Aquarium issued a statement saying a 17-year-old female known as Snow Cone, first spotted entangled in long ropes in March 2021, was so ill that "her death is all but certain." Her calf disappeared in April.
As well, tough questions remain about the high costs associated with ropeless gear. There are no standards when it comes to location-marking systems, and American fishermen have shown significant resistance to using ropeless gear and other technology aimed at helping right whales avoid entanglements.
"It's not clear sailing yet," said Brillant. "In the U.S., it's much more polarized and adversarial. Fish harvesters, their associations and unions, are highly resistant to having to adopt ropeless gear .... They're having difficulty making any progress."