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Right whale population decreased 30% over the past decade

In this March 28, 2018 photo, a North Atlantic right whale appears at the surface of Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Plymouth. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
In this March 28, 2018 photo, a North Atlantic right whale appears at the surface of Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Plymouth. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

The North Atlantic right whale population has shrunk by 30% over the last decade, capped off by a roughly 8% annual decline to an estimated 336 whales remaining in 2020, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium announced Monday.

The population estimate of 336 right whales is the lowest for the endangered species in nearly 20 years, the group said, and is thought to include fewer than 100 breeding females. The species had an estimated 481 whales in 2011 but the count has been on the decline since.

"We are obviously discouraged by this estimate, but quite frankly, not surprised," said Heather Pettis, associate scientist at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and executive administrator of the consortium. "The right whale research and conservation communities know that while widespread efforts to change the trajectory of the species have been undertaken, they have not been enough."

Right whales got their name, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, "from being the 'right' whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed." Nantucket and New Bedford thrived as whaling ports in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the expeditions that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution severely depleted whale populations. Northern right whales have been listed as endangered since 1970.

Now as New Bedford and other former New England whaling ports aim for revitalization through the offshore wind industry, the developments are facing headwinds from two federal lawsuits that focus on the protection of endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale and commercial fishing interests.

Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, a group opposed to the Vineyard Wind I project that is expected to come online in 2023, in August filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop its construction, arguing that several federal agencies violated laws intended to protect endangered species like the right whales.

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