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Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale Population Drops

An aerial view of a right whale erupting from the blow hole while feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
An aerial view of a right whale erupting from the blow hole while feeding off the shores of Duxbury Beach. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The population of an endangered species of whale that has been the focus of conservation efforts for decades has dipped to less than 370.

The North Atlantic right whale numbers only 366, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Monday in an estimate that reflects the population as of January 2019. That's an 11% drop from the previous estimate of 412 in January 2018. Scientists now think that estimate was too high.

Of the new estimate, only 94 are believed to be reproductive females.

The whales have struggled with poor reproduction and high mortality over the last decade, especially the last few years. They're vulnerable to ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

"It's a challenge of health and mortality," said Michael Moore, senior scientist and director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. "The species needs to have healthy individuals that can be reproductive, and we have to stop killing them."

The population peaked at 481 in 2011, according to NOAA. An agency team is working on a plan designed to reduce the risk the whales face due to fishing gear.

But even measures already in place aimed at protecting the whales may not be enough. Moore said it is getting harder to anticipate where the protective measures are needed because climate change is causing water temperatures to shift, throwing off the locations of food sources — and as a result, the whales' migration patterns.

Conservation groups sounded the alarm Monday about the drop in population. Erica Fuller, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation, said "the outlook is grim if we do not act today."

"They can come back from this, for sure, but I strongly believe in gradients," she said. "And the gradient right now is downhill. We need to turn this around."

The population of North Atlantic right whales was devastated during the commercial whaling era. They've been a federally protected species since 1972.

With reporting from The Associated Press and WBUR's Hannah Chanatry

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