Scientists at an international meeting on the North Atlantic right whales are raising new concerns about the health of the female population and adding urgency to ongoing calls for government action to help save the species.
"At what point do you say these numbers are so low and so concerning that we actually have to do something? We're telling you as scientists: that time is now," said Mark Baumgartner, the chair of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, at the group's annual meeting at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Dr. Baumgartner told the assembly of scientists, government managers and fishing-industry professionals that we have years, not decades, to save the endangered right whales from extinction.
New research presented showed that only 23 per cent of the right whale population are breeding females. The consortium heard that female right whales are dying too young and not having enough calves.
Females are more susceptible to health problems from fishing-gear entanglements, which can impair their ability to feed. That's because female right whales require more fat stores to reproduce and raise healthy calves. More than 85 per cent of right whales have been entangled at least once.
"We just don't have a lot of time," said Dr. Baumgartner. "The calculation suggests breeding females that exist today could be wiped out in two decades, and if we wipe them out, it's pretty much game over for the population. There will be more females coming into the population, but not many and not enough to sustain."
The annual North Atlantic Right Whale Report Card was released Sunday and showed even more dire population projections for the species, and highlighted the urgency of new regulations to reduce the number of fishing-gear entanglements.
The latest population estimate put the number of North Atlantic right whales at 451 in 2016, which does not include the deaths this summer. In 2015, there were an estimated 458 right whales.
This past summer, 12 right whales died due to human cause – either ship strikes or fishing-gear entanglements – in Canadian waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Three more right whales also died in the U.S.
Scientists said only about one-third of right whale deaths are detected so the death toll is likely much higher.
Amy Knowlton, a right whale scientist with the New England Aquarium, told the consortium that fishing-gear entanglements are an escalating problem and are becoming more severe, likely due to more fishing, shifting distributions of right whales and stronger fishing rope.
Ms. Knowlton said the fishing ropes used to be made of natural rope until the 1950s when stronger, plastic rope came on the market, making it more lethal for whales. She said this is a key area that needs to be examined and regulated.
"I think we need to understand what rope strength [fishermen] actually need to effectively haul their gear. I don't feel that they need the strength that they're using in all cases, but we need to work with the industry to test that to see what they can effectively use," said Ms. Knowlton.
"We are at a crisis stage. The urgency is really high right now for this population."
Aerial surveillance data shows that at least 118 individual right whales are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – about a quarter of the population. Previously, the whales spent summer and fall months feeding in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin where protections and conservation efforts were already in place.
This potential new habitat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence clashes with some of the country's busiest shipping lanes and the site of a rich snow-crab fishery.
This past summer, there were eight live entanglements in snow-crab fishing gear in the Gulf and at least three deaths as a result of entanglements.
The spike in entanglements and deaths coincides with Fisheries and Oceans Canada doubling the quotas in 2017 for snow-crab fishermen in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Snow-crab fisherman Gordon MacDonald attended the consortium and said fishermen are already coming up with solutions to protect the whales.
"We're not sitting around waiting for some regulation to happen. We're sitting at the table right now trying to figure out what we can do, in our own individual fisheries, to make sure that the whales are protected," said Mr. MacDonald, who manages Area 23 of the Crab Fishermen's Association in Cape Breton, N.S.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada deputy minister Catherine Blewett declined to say what steps the federal government is considering to prevent more North Atlantic right whale deaths.
"At this point, everything is on the table," said Ms. Blewett during an interview at the consortium. "We're trying not to narrow it and prescribe a solution, just as we're talking to industry."
Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Dominic LeBlanc is hosting a roundtable discussion with fishing and shipping industry representatives and scientists next month.
However, Dr. Baumgartner was skeptical about the usefulness of a government roundtable discussion with industry, saying these kind of talks are fraught with problems.
"The roundtable is 30 people sitting around a table for three hours. Do we think that solutions are going to come out of that forum? That needs to roll into a much longer process of dialogue with the stakeholders," said Dr. Baumgartner.
The consortium convened an international task force on Sunday, to be made up of scientists, government managers and industry professionals, to try to save the species.