After seven years on the decline, the global population of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale may be starting to level off, providing a glimpse of hope for the species’ survival. 

A new annual report by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, an organization of American and Canadian marine ecologists, fishermen and conservationists, reveals that the world’s population of right whales remained relatively stable between 2021 and 2022.

“What we’re seeing is that the long decline we tracked in the population is starting to flatten out,” said Heather Pettis, executive administrator of the consortium and research scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “That is, of course, better than a continued decline.”

In 2021, the right whale population totaled an estimated 364. Their numbers lowered slightly in 2022 to approximately 356 — the least significant population decrease researchers have documented in nearly a decade.

Still, Ms. Pettis, who has been studying right whales for 24 years, emphasized that the species remains in peril and its future is anything but certain. 

“I wouldn’t characterize the numbers as exciting,” she said. “What a flattening out still says is that for every right whale that’s born into the population, one is killed."

The leading cause of death and injury for right whales are human activities, including fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. This year alone, the New England Aquarium, in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, has tracked roughly 32 human-induced injuries to the whales through photographs and video footage. 

Some state and federal efforts are being made to curb the whales’ decline, including a recently-announced $82 million right whale protection fund by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But even greater intervention is needed to ensure their survival, said Ms. Pettis. 

“We’re still killing a lot of these animals, and almost just as important as those deaths are the injuries that we see that aren’t immediately lethal but are debilitating for them,” she said. “They impact the whales’ ability to grow, feed and reproduce.”

In the early 2010s, the right whale population reached its peak in three decades at almost 500 — a number that, should the whales reach again, would be a cause for celebration, said Ms. Pettis. 

“Five hundred is not a lot of animals, relatively speaking,” she said. “But it would be fantastic, and I would love to see us well below one mortality or serious injury a year, too.”

This week, Ms. Pettis and nearly 600 other members of the consortium are convening for the group’s annual conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia to discuss the latest research and brainstorm additional ways for the commercial fishing and wildlife conservation industries to protect right whales. 

“It’s a big community of people who are just really interested in committed to figuring out how to make the species survive and thrive, while at the same time supporting commercial industries,” said Ms. Pettis. “A lot of the conversations that will happen at this meeting are, yes, we need to figure out how to reduce deaths, but we also need to figure out how to better take care of the overall health of the population and reduce these injuries.”