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(CNN) - The fate of the increasingly rare North Atlantic right whale has always been left to humans.
Hunted almost to the brink of extinction, the population of these animals is declining sharply again. Any hope for survival, researchers say, requires immediate action.
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A new report by Oceana, a nonprofit ocean defense group, says that unless protections are established, the North Atlantic free whale will die.
"At some point, if the trend continues, recovery will simply be impossible," the researchers wrote.
Only 400 of them remain, and less than 25% are breeding females responsible for the survival of the species. At least 28 have died in the last two years, Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber told CNN.
Its sharp decline has been driven by fishing, navigation and climate change that affects its food supply, says the report.
"We don't really see whales die for natural causes anymore," he said. "They are dying in our hands."
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The decline is driven by human activity
They are called the right whale (right, right in English) not because that is their dominant side, but because they were once the "right whale" (right also means indicated in English) to hunt, because they swim near the shore and float When they are killed.
When whaling was banned in 1935, they were hunted almost to extinction. Then, in the last decades, the whale found new enemies.
At least 100 right whales get entangled in vertical fishing lines every year, according to the report. Fisheries use traps and pots at the bottom of the ocean with vertical lines attached to the buoys so they can be lifted.
The free whales of the North Atlantic like this fight to free themselves from fishing gear. Tangle is one of its leading causes of death.
More than a million of the lines cross the whale migration routes in the United States and Canada, Webber said. "It's a minefield," he said.
The lines are extremely strong to support the weight of the pots and traps, so when the whales get caught in them, they often drag them for months, which slows them down and makes feeding, reproduction and swimming difficult. The line also cuts its meat, causing an infection that could kill them.
But the lines have challenged the whales for years. Things have become much more difficult in the last two years, Webber said.
Since 2017, 8% of its population, 28 whales, have died in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has described as an “unusual mortality event”.
It is likely because their food source, a small plankton called copepods, is fleeing to colder waters further north, Webber said. In Canada, whales face more water fishing lines and heavier boat traffic, not to mention hundreds of additional kilometers of travel.
This means that the search for food could be fatal.
These problems aggravate the low birth rate of the whale. The mammal does not reach sexual maturity until 10 years, and females usually give birth only one offspring every three to five years. However, entanglement stress in fishing nets has extended the period between births to 10 years, according to the report.
The whales had names and families. The researchers are shocked
Because there are so few whales, researchers maintain a catalog of them. All have numbers, but some, like Punctuation, have names.
The team that studied them for years knows their lineage and has seen the young become parents and, in some cases, grandmothers.
Punctuation, a grandmother whale named for the comma-shaped marks on the back, died in June after a ship hit it, according to the report.
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Investigators investigate the death of Punctuation, a frank whale grandmother who had been studied for almost 40 years. She was killed in a ship collision.
He had survived two previous boat collisions and had been caught in fishing lines five times, but these wounds were too severe to survive: his organs began to slide down a 1.8-meter cut on his back.
He had had eight offspring between 1986 and 2016, and two of them had their own offspring. Many of their young died in similar circumstances.
The researchers followed the matriarch for 38 years. His death was a devastating blow, Webber said.
"They knew these whales," he said. "They are very personal."
There are ways to save them
"Functional extinction" is likely in the coming decades if things do not change. Oceana's defenders are working on a proposal to eliminate vertical Atlantic fishing lines, but that process could take years to go through the United States Government, if it gets anywhere.
Meanwhile, the report describes several recommendations that could improve the number of free whales in the North Atlantic. Two are essential: discontinue use of the vertical fishing line and apply speed restrictions in the ocean.
Changing manual vertical lines for something more high-tech, such as an automated system, is still far away, Webber said. Meanwhile, fisheries can temporarily close the areas where lines are drawn while the whales are in them.
In the United States, many areas with slower speed recommendations are just that: recommendations, not mandatory restrictions. If speed limits are imposed on the ocean, whale collisions could fall 86%, he said.
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Their lives impact the life of the ocean
Watching the whales go extinct would be "horrible, shameful, and every bad word there is," Webber said.
"Every creature has a role to play in the ecosystem," he said.
A healthy ocean ecosystem translates into healthy coastal economies. Fisheries depend on the abundance of their crops, and when a link in the food chain disappears, the loss disrupts the balance of the ecosystem, altering the size of the population and the presence of predators and natural prey.
If they leave, the Atlantic Ocean would lose one of its largest and most unusual whales.