State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The “Right” Whale to Save

You may have heard that Earth’s current sixth mass extinction stems from human causes, but what does this actually look like? I present to you Exhibit A: North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), a species disappearing at an alarming rate. More than 2 percent of the entire North Atlantic right whale population has died in 2019, with the population now hovering around 400. Of these remaining whales, there are an estimated fewer than 100 breeding females alive. Hope for North Atlantic right whales is dwindling.

North Atlantic right whale and calf
North Atlantic right whale and calf. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I have been following the plight of North Atlantic right whales with a team of students in my cohort for the past two semesters at Columbia University through the Environmental Science and Policy workshop program. In teams, students analyze the science behind proposed environmental legislation in the summer semester before focusing on policy implications in the fall. My team concentrated on H.R.1568 or “The Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) North Atlantic Right Whales Act of 2019.”

The species was initially decimated by whaling; their name stems from being considered the “right” whale to hunt since they float after death. Protections for the species were established by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1949, but North Atlantic right whales never fully recovered as a result of ongoing human threats. The primary causes of North Atlantic right whale mortality today are ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear from the shipping and fishing industries, respectively. Research shows that more than 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetime. Ocean noise is an additional threat that leads to higher stress rates for whales, which can contribute to decreased lifespans.

H.R. 1568 was introduced by U.S. Congressman Seth Moulton in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 6, 2019, and six months later, an identical Senate companion bill was introduced as S.2453 by U.S. Senator Cory Booker. The SAVE North Atlantic Right Whales Act aims to rebuild healthy populations of the species by providing $5M in annual grant funding across 10 years for entities and programs dedicated to the conservation of North Atlantic right whales. Additionally, the bill mandates a joint US-Canadian plankton survey to monitor the primary food source of North Atlantic right whales: zooplankton (Calanus finmarchicus).

North Atlantic right whales are baleen whales, meaning they feed through a series of flexible plates made of keratin protein which filter their microscopic prey. During feeding season, which takes place in spring and summer, North Atlantic right whales consume around 5,000 pounds of zooplankton per day. As a result of climate change, zooplankton have been moving northward toward cooler waters. North Atlantic right whales are following their prey, venturing out of protected maritime zones to unprotected waters where they are dying from ship strikes and entanglement.

There are various potential solutions to solving the overall issue of ship strikes and entanglement that involve enacting new regulations and implementing innovative technologies. New regulations could expand protection zones, reduce ship speeds, and restrict fishing to certain areas or seasons that do not coincide with North Atlantic right whale migratory patterns. Although the SAVE Right Whales Act does not establish new protection zones for the species, it does fund projects of existing organizations that apply to the grant program. Those organizations will likely lobby for expanded protections, which would require enacting further legislation.

Our workshop team believes that organizations applying for the grant should begin by focusing on emergency rescue and response rates to halt further population decline. Once mortality is under control, the grant program could shift focus toward funding new technologies that would increase population numbers. Examples of such technologies include passive acoustic monitoring and ropeless fishing lines. The former involves using sound recorders to track whale movement, which would aid in additional conservation measures. Ropeless fishing lines —though currently illegal in the US and Canada — have the potential to solve the problem of entanglement.

There is a long way to go toward saving North Atlantic right whales from extinction. While the SAVE Right Whales Act does not establish new protected zones for the species, it is an important political step for aiding in the rescue and recovery of North Atlantic right whales.  Nonetheless, the question remains: What can you do to help the species avoid extinction? Contact your representative in Congress and pressure them to pass the SAVE Right Whales Act with this easy-to-use form from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, and consider sharing this article to raise awareness.

Extinction is permanent; we must act now to save North Atlantic right whales before time runs out.

Sophie Capshaw-Mack is a graduate student in the Master of Public Administration: Environmental Science and Policy Program (MPA-ESP). She is passionate about conservation and the intersection between climate change, ethics, and culture. Sophie will graduate in May 2020.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt ( with any questions or to schedule a campus visit. MPA-ESP is currently accepting applications for summer 2020 with a fellowship funding consideration deadline of January 15, 2020.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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