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Researchers share tragic news on critically endangered right whale baby: 'A beacon of hope has turned into a tragedy'

"We're watching the last ones die."

"We're watching the last ones die."

Photo Credit: Getty Images

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed the first baby right whale death of the year recently because of a shipping collision.

What's happening?

Right whales are vulnerable to shipping collisions because they spend most of their lives near the water's surface. This North Atlantic whale population has been declining since 2017 when the NOAA classified them under an Unusual Mortality Event, described as "a significant die-off of a marine population [that] demands [an] immediate response."

The right whale's feeding behaviors are moving away from their traditional areas off the coast of Florida and Georgia and, more often, into dangerous shipping lanes. Environmental groups are suing the U.S. government to force them to finalize speed rules announced by the NOAA in 2022 as a safety measure to protect the right whales.

"With an amended vessel speed rule, this death may never have happened," said Greg Reilly, a marine campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "A beacon of hope has turned into a tragedy."

Why is this trend concerning?

The right whale's feeding habits are shifting because of the warming of the oceans from climate change. Right whales feed on plankton, and when the ocean water warms, the currents change how the plankton is distributed. Because of this trend, 20 right whale deaths have happened in Canada since 2017.

"We're responsible for the right whales' demise," said Dr. Erica Fuller, a veterinarian and a lawyer with Conservation Law Foundation. "We're watching the last ones die."

Whales provide many benefits to the ecosystem, but the most fascinating thing may be that they are nature's solution to climate change

Whales absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into their bodies, as much as 1,500 times more than trees can handle. When whales die, their carcasses fall to the ocean floor, slowly releasing the captured carbon dioxide over hundreds of years.

What's being done to protect whales?

Right whales remain classified as endangered; however, there's a new glimmer of hope. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, the entity responsible for calculating the right whale's yearly population estimates, reported late in 2023 that the rate of decline may be leveling off after their latest analysis.

A project launched in 2022 called the Blue Boat Initiative aims to use smart buoys that can listen to the ocean and monitor any climate change to inform how to avoid shipping collisions.

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