Northeast CASC Contributes to NOAA’s Efforts to Support Right Whale Conservation

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Northeast CASC Science Coordinator Michelle Staudinger participated in a scenario planning activity led by NOAA Fisheries supporting future recovery efforts of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

North Atlantic Right Whale

North Atlantic Right Whale (Public domain.)

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a critically endangered species of high conservation concern, with scientists estimating less than 400 individuals left in the world. Population declines in the species have been linked to both natural and human causes, including reduced prey abundance and injuries from ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements. Multiple government and non-governmental organizations have developed research, policies, and plans to aid right whale recovery, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries in 2005. Yet right whale’s response to altered ocean conditions in combination with other stressors under a changing climate remains unclear.

Northeast CASC Science Coordinator Michelle Staudinger contributed to a 2018 scenario planning activity led by NOAA Fisheries that explores the future of right whale conservation. The effort, summarized in a newly-released report, used projected changes in ocean conditions and human activities to generate four plausible future scenarios for right whales (Figure 1), reflecting both positive and negative environmental changes and potential changes in human behavior that could help or harm whale populations. Through a series of workshops, webinars, and expert interviews, the team evaluated how each scenario could impact right whale populations and what management actions and research priorities could increase conservation success under each set of conditions. This activity was designed to complement existing conservation initiatives and to address uncertainty around future human-driven and environmental changes.

The scenario planning effort reinforced the importance of ongoing initiatives to decrease right whale mortality from vessel traffic and fishing entanglements and supported developing new strategies to further reduce impacts from human activities. The team also identified research priorities necessary for understanding right whale population dynamics in the future, including researching shifting distributions of right whales and prey under changing climate conditions. They also highlighted a need to maintain existing partnerships and to develop collaborations with new sectors, such as business and industry, to further strengthen right whale recovery. The effort has already fostered new partnerships and initiatives supporting right whale conservation efforts, including increased funding by NOAA Fisheries for research on climate-induced changes in prey populations and expanded collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other partners to increase participation in the newly reconvened Right Whale Northeast Implementation Team (NEIT) and new Right Whale Implementation Team Population Evaluation Tool Subgroup (PET Subgroup).

Graphic showing four future scenarios outlined by team from NOAA fisheries for future right whale populations: Thrive, Support a

A scenario planning exercise supported by NOAA fisheries generated four plausible scenarios for future right whale populations based on differences in future environmental conditions and human activities: 1) Thrive, where right whale populations increase due to successful conservation actions and favorable ocean conditions, 2) Support and Survive, where whale populations remain constant as conservation actions make up for less-than-ideal ocean conditions, 3) Limited Options but Alive, where populations remain constant due to favorable ocean conditions but continue to be threatened by human activities, and Dive, where populations decline due to both unfavorable ocean conditions and unmitigated threats from human activity. The ideal scenario, Thrive, is denoted by a yellow star. Figure modified from Figure 3 in the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) Scenario Planning Summary Report.

(Public domain.)

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