On May 5, 2016 hundreds of researchers, managers, conservationists, and educators mourned the loss of a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale as word spread that Punctuation’s newborn, less than six months old, was found dead off a Cape Cod beach.
The 9th child of an adult female named Punctuation had already been somewhat of a celebrity in the right whale research community when they were photographed together this past January off the coast of Georgia. In February, researchers alerted the Navy, Coast Guard and shippers that the pair were traveling just south of the busy shipping channels off Brunswick. Still nursing and consuming more than 40 gallons of milk a day, this tenacious newborn traveled to Cape Cod Bay alongside Punctuation where they were last seen on April 28th. While the cause of death has yet to be determined, injuries consistent with a ship strike have been documented. A full necropsy (autopsy) is underway.
North Atlantic right whales are a critically endangered species with only approximately 500 individuals remaining. Entanglement in fishing gear remains a major threat to the survival of this species. At least 83% have been entangled at least once, with as few as three percent of whale entanglements reported. While ship strike risk has declined with the implementation of a seasonal 10kt speed rule, this threat continues to limit the recovery of this species. Based on most recently available data, between four and five right whales are seriously injured or killed each year as a result of human impacts. These data do not consider the emerging risks of offshore energy, including a proposal to conduct seismic testing along the right whales’ migratory corridor, which the US government acknowledges could result in injury to 138,000 whales and dolphins. The recovery of right whales remains so fragile that the US government has determined that this species cannot afford to lose even one whale to a human caused incident in any year.
WDC is fully aware that implementing effective regulatory measures to reduce threats to this species takes years to implement and requires dedicated advocacy. Since 2005 WDC has formally petitioned the government, partnered in litigation, spearheaded international campaigns, responded to federal requests for comments, and met with members of the Obama Administration specifically to advocate for right whale protections. Just this past January, after more than six years of work and just 10 days after Punctuation and her calf were sighted off Georgia, we celebrated the expansion of critical habitat for right whales. Today, however, we are mourning the death of a loved one and realizing we still have a lot more work to do.