One of Earth's Largest Whale Species Will Be Extinct in 20 Years, Marine Scientists Warn

Starboard, a female right whale, died off Canada’s coast after dragging snow crab traps for days. NOAA/NEFSC/PETER DULEY

The North Atlantic Right Whale is in dire straights. Experts predict that there may be none of the animals left by the year 2037.

Last month, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Society for Marine Mammalogy discussed the travails of right whales, whose populations face threats from human activity. While commercially hunting the endangered species is currently illegal, the whales still suffer from centuries of over-harvesting. In fact, the name "right" whale comes from whalers, who figured it was easy to kill and full of valuable oil and baleen, so it was the "right" one to hunt.

There are approximately 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the world; 100 are reproductively mature females. One major threat to the animals is accidental encounters with humans ships, which can strike and injure or kill them. The whales also often become entangled in fishing nets. Even if the nets don't kill them immediately, dragging around buoys and debris can stress them out and make them less likely to deliver healthy babies. In the 1980's, each female had a calf roughly every three years. Now, it's only once every nine years. Their death rate is exceeding their birth rate.

Dragging around nets and garbage also requires a lot of caloric energy, so the animals need to eat more. Scientists suggest that a female who is spending so much energy swimming with increased drag may not be able to support a pregnancy, and go another year without increasing the whale population.

Different legislation protects different species of whale from being killed because of their past of over-exploitation. There are sometimes exceptions for aboriginal hunters, who consume much lower numbers of animals than commercial whaling ships do.

According to ScienceMag, experts gathered data and found that, since 2009, 58 percent of right whale deaths were caused by entanglements in fishing gear. They wrote that 83 percent of right whales had been caught at least once in their lives.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a review of the two endangered whales in 2006, when the North Atlantic species had only 300 members. They wrote that the North Pacific right whale is so scarce that their population wouldn't even be able to handle minimal subsistence hunting.

There are three species of right whale: the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and the Southern right whale. The two northern species are endangered, according to the IUCN, and the Southern species is of "least concern." Southern right whale populations are increasing, but the trend of the endangered whales is officially listed as "unknown."