By Patrick Whittle

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The decline of an endangered species of whale slowed last year, as it lost about 2 percent of its population, but scientists warn that the animal still exists. are facing threats and are rapidly losing breeding stock.

The North Atlantic right whale population numbered more than 480 in 2010 and declined by more than 25 percent over the next decade. The population dropped to an estimated 340 last year, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a group of scientists, government officials and industry members, said Monday.

That’s a drop of eight animals from last year, when the population was initially thought to be even lower. Whales are vulnerable to ship collisions and entanglement in commercial fishing gear, and have suffered from poor reproduction and high mortality in recent years.

“The reality is we’re still seeing unsustainable levels of human impact on the species,” said Heather Petts, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and executive administrator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. “We’re still injuring these animals to the point where it’s not just about survival. It’s about health, it’s about reproduction.”

Right whales live near the East Coast and migrate annually from calving grounds in Georgia and Florida to feeding grounds in New England and Canada. They were once abundant but became extinct during the era of commercial whaling, when they were hunted for oil and meat.

Whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act for more than 50 years, but recovery has been slow. The population was even lower in 1990, when it was 264, Pettis said. One of the biggest challenges facing right whales today is that the number of female whales capable of breeding appears to be dwindling.

An article published this month in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science reports that the estimated population of female right whales has declined from 185 in 2014 to 142 in 2018. At the beginning of 2018, the article said.

The whales appear to be getting smaller, and that’s hurting their ability to reproduce, said Peter Carcrohn, head of the Crouse Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the Cabot Center and one of the article’s authors.

“The world needs a fatter whale,” Corkiron said.

The plight of right whales has emerged as a major problem for commercial fisheries in the United States, particularly the U.S. lobster industry, which is largely located in Maine. Whales are particularly prone to entanglement in fixed vertical underwater lines used to fish for lobsters and crabs.

The federal government has enacted new restrictions on lobster fishing in an effort to protect right whales, and fishermen have argued that the rules could put them out of business. A group of lobster fishermen sued to block the rules, and their case is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the new right whale estimate shows the population is stabilizing. However, the new fishing laws “could wipe out the Maine lobster fishery,” McCarron said.

Warming oceans are also a concern. Whales have developed a network of safe zones to allow them to feed on the small organisms they feed on without the risk of entanglement and collision. However, warmer waters have shifted their diet, and they have since moved to less protected areas where they are more vulnerable, scientists have said.

Conservation groups have advocated for vessel speed restrictions and stricter fishing regulations to protect the whales.

“These latest population figures confirm that this species is on the brink of functional extinction, and current efforts to save it are falling short,” said Sarah Sharp, International Fund for Animal Welfare. Well-being Veterinarian said. “However, there is hope on the horizon. Solutions do exist.”