The North Atlantic right whale population likely numbered just 366 animals with 94 breeding females in early 2019, a substantial downgrade from earlier estimates and a signal the extremely endangered species is in even more dire straits, NMFS officials warned Monday.

The warning came in an email to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, an advisory panel that confers with NMFS experts on how to reduce accidental injuries and deaths of whales, the biggest threats being ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Previous estimates, based on biologists' modeling, experts’ surveys and cataloging of surviving right whales, had pegged the population that migrates between Canada and Florida at 412 animals in January 2018. That’s one source of the rounded-off “about 400” population number common in reports about the species in recent years.

The news came out one day before the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a group dedicated to researching and reducing threats to the species. The U.S.- and Canada-based group, which includes academic, government, and shipping and fishing industries representation, opened its two-day virtual conference Tuesday with the latest population data.

Governments in both nations are under steadily increasing pressure to reduce ship speeds in known right whale territory and find new ways to end encounters with fishing gear.

In U.S. waters, NMFS is looking at lobster area closures offshore of Maine, a move state fisheries experts say would have a sharp economic effect on Maine’s lobstering communities and do little to protect the species. There have been no fatalities tied to the Maine fleet for more than two decades. Meanwhile, the state's fishermen have voluntarily implemented a series of measures to reduce risks.

If 11 known whale deaths and four cases of likely mortal injuries since January 2019 are counted, the actual population today could be fewer than 351 right whales, suggested the group Defenders of Wildlife. If that’s the case, right whales have suffered roughly two dozen deaths annually since their last estimated peak population of 481 in 2011, the group says.

In court, environmental groups failed in their bid to seek a large lobster gear restriction zone in southern New England waters. But the federal judge in that case gave NMFS until May 2021 to come up with a new plan to reduce whale losses – and explicitly warned against any delay.

Prior to 2017, estimates led experts to believe the right whale population could be slowly adding numbers. But new modeling reported that year by researchers led by Richard Pace, a wildlife biologist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, indicated the numbers had actually been dropping since 2010, according to Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. Continuing refinements to the Pace model apparently played a role in the latest population reassessment announced by NMFS, she said.

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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