Scientists will gather this weekend with a sense of urgency at the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium to discuss ways to protect the animals, whose population has dwindled to fewer than 500.
At the rate the animals are dying (3 percent of the right whale population died over the past six months), the group doesn’t have long to act, according to Mark Baumgartner, an associate scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth and the leader of the consortium.
“We have the possibility of losing an iconic species that lives in our backyard,” he said. “These animals’ survival — it’s our responsibility.”
At least 15 right whales have died since this past spring due to vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement, Baumgartner said. Of those 15 deaths, three occurred off Massachusetts.
Right whales are dying more quickly than they’re reproducing, Baumgartner said. While 15 of the animals died this year, only five calves were born.
“This is going to be another year of decline,” he said. “Human-caused mortality of these animals is higher than it’s ever been.”
The conference, which will be held in Nova Scotia on Sunday, is designed not only to discuss the status of the species but also to brainstorm ways to implement protective measures, Baumgartner said.
Some of the measures are fairly straightforward, such as asking ships to avoid certain areas or travel more slowly.
Slower ships are less likely to strike right whales, and if they do, the damage is less likely to be fatal, Baumgartner said.
In addition to ship strikes, entanglement is another major threat facing right whales, Baumgartner said, partly because ropes used in the fishing industry are becoming increasingly strong and whales are unable to break free like they once did.
“If you turn the clocks back 20 years, the ropes were completely fishable, but it didn’t take as much force for whales to break out of them,” he said.
In order to solve the entanglement issue, Baumgartner said, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are working to develop fishing gear that uses very little rope, such as technology that relies on acoustic commands instead of a series of ropes to reel in gear.
“We’ve tried a lot of things, but there’s a lot more we can do,” he said.