Research Publication

Decreasing body lengths in North Atlantic right whales

By Joshua D. Stewart, John W. Durban, Amy R. Knowlton, Morgan S. Lynn, Holly Fearnbach, Jacob Barbaro, Wayne L. Perryman, Carolyn A. Miller, Michael J. Moore

Originally published in Current Biology in July 2021



Whales are now largely protected from direct harvest, leading to partial recoveries in many previously depleted species. However, most populations remain far below their historical abundances and incidental human impacts, especially vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, are increasingly recognized as key threats. In addition, climate-driven changes to prey dynamics are impacting the seasonal foraging grounds of many baleen whales. In many cases these impacts result directly in mortality. But it is less clear how widespread and increasing sub-lethal impacts are affecting life history, individual fitness, and population viability. We evaluated changes in body lengths of North Atlantic right whales (NARW) using aerial photogrammetry measurements collected from crewed aircraft and remotely operated drones over a 20-year period. NARW have been monitored consistently since the 1980s and have been declining in abundance since 2011 due primarily to deaths associated with entanglements in active fishing gear and vessel strikes. High rates of sub-lethal injuries and individual-level information on age, size and observed entanglements make this an ideal population to evaluate the effects that these widespread stressors may have on individual fitness. We find that entanglements in fishing gear are associated with shorter whales, and that body lengths have been decreasing since 1981. Arrested growth may lead to reduced reproductive success and increased probability of lethal gear entanglements. These results show that sub-lethal stressors threaten the recoveries of vulnerable whale populations even in the absence of direct harvest.

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Affiliated Authors
  • Amy Knowlton

    Amy Knowlton, Senior Scientist, Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

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