PORTLAND, Maine (CBS/AP) — The population of North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species that has been the focus of conservation efforts for decades, has dipped to less than 370, officials said.

The whale numbers at only 366, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday in an estimate that reflects the population as of January 2019. The previous estimate, which reflected January 2018, was 412.

NOAA Fisheries has documented 15 deaths or serious injuries leading to deaths in right whales since January 2019.

“With so few North Atlantic right whales, every death is its own tragedy,” The Conservation Law Foundation said in a statement.

Right whale Harmonia and her calf traveling through Cape Cod Bay on 4/12/20.
Credit: Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA permit #19315-1

The whales have struggled with poor reproduction and high mortality over the last decade, especially the past few years. They’re vulnerable to ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

The population was more than 480 in 2011, the Portland Press Herald reported. A NOAA team is working on a plan designed to reduce the risk the whales face due to fishing gear.

Conservation groups sounded the alarm about the drop in population Monday. Erica Fuller, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation, said “the outlook is grim if we do not act today.”

The population of North Atlantic right whales was devastated during the commercial whaling era. It has been a federally protected species since 1972.

Over the summer, The International Union for Conservation of Nature moved the right whale from “endangered” to “critically endangered” on its Red List of jeopardized species.

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(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

 

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