6 right whale deaths bode ill for species

Six North Atlantic right whales have died in Canadian waters in the past three weeks in what scientists are calling an “unprecedented” mortality event for one of the world’s most endangered whale species.

The deaths, which occurred in fewer than 20 days, represent a loss of more than 1 percent of the entire population of right whales, the most endangered whale species in the Atlantic Ocean.

“This is a right whale mortality disaster,” said Mark Baumgartner, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “The loss of so many animals so quickly has probably not occurred since right whales were hunted in the early 1800s.”

One of the whales died after becoming caught in fishing gear, Baumgartner said. Necropsies are being done on the other five to determine the causes of their deaths.

There are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, a marked improvement since the 1990s, when the population was 350 or fewer, he said. But, he added, in the past few years, the number has begun to decline, due largely to ship strikes and fishing gear.

“Right whales may not have decades to turn this around,” he said. “We need to be acting now.”

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