Ocean Regime Shift is Driving Collapse of the North Atlantic Right Whale Population

North Atlantic right whales had been making a slow recovery, but ocean changes linked to global warming are pushing down their numbers again, scientists say.

Ocean warming linked to anthropogenic climate change is impacting the ecology of marine species around the world. In 2010, the Gulf of Maine and Scotian Shelf regions of the Northwest Atlantic underwent an unprecedented regime shift. Forced by climate-driven changes in the Gulf Stream, warm slope waters entered the region and created a less favorable foraging environment for the endangered North Atlantic right whale population. By mid-decade, right whales had shifted their late spring/summer foraging grounds from the Gulf of Maine and the western Scotian Shelf to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The population also began exhibiting unusually high mortality in 2017. Here, we report that climate-driven changes in ocean circulation have altered the foraging environment and habitat use of right whales, reducing the population’s calving rate and exposing it to greater mortality risks from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. The case of the North Atlantic right whale provides a cautionary tale for the management of protected species in a changing ocean.

Meyer-Gutbrod, Erin L., Charles H. Greene, Kimberley T.A. Davies, and David G. Johns (2021) Oceanography 34(3): 22-31