There is no argument that the North Atlantic right whale is in dire straits. Dr. Mark Baumgartner, a biologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, gave a compelling presentation on the plight of the whales on Tuesday evening, Jan. 23, at the Vineyard Gazette office. It was well attended.

One point of interest was that the right whales were making a healthy comeback over a period of two decades. The population rebounded from 270 living whales in 1992 to 483 in 2010. From then the numbers began to decline rapidly, with 2017 being a particularly devastating year, a loss of 17 whales. Dr. Baumgartner stressed the main focus was on whale entanglements with snow crab and lobster gear, and spoke of urgent measures needed to be taken immediately within the fishery. Massachusetts fishermen are leading the way with break-away links at the base of surface buoys (to 600 pounds in 2001), sink rope (mandated in 2003), gear reductions and seasonal gear restrictions in Cape Cod Bay. He also touched on ship strikes as being a cause of death.

But what Dr. Baumgartner could not explain was the scarcity of food that these leviathans need to feed on and their low birth rate. He showed the audience slides on the Calanus finmarchicus, known as copepods and remarked that this type of plankton, sought after by these whales, are basically comprised of fat. Each adult whale needs to consume thousands of copepods daily to remain healthy. The birth rate dropped 40 per cent between 2010 and 2016, and all five calves that were born in 2017 were to older mothers. Other scientists too are raising questions and concerns about the low birth rates among right whales.

Perhaps the decline is linked to the environmental disaster on April 20, 2010, the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. From April 20 to July 15 that year, more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the gulf, followed by another one million gallons of Corexit, a dispersant mixture of solvents and surfactants that break down the oil into tiny droplets. It has been documented that for three months marine microorganisms ingested these toxins, which are carried along the Gulf Stream, a strong underwater current that flows through the Gulf of Mexico, skirts around Florida, flowing between Cuba and up the Eastern seaboard.

Since the right whales give birth off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, could these toxic chemicals be part of their decline? “The chemicals in the oil product that move up through the food web are a great concern for us,” said Teri Rowles, coordinator of NOAA’s marine mammal health and stranding response program. Other documentation shows that female mammals including humans that have been in contact with these toxins have suffered from irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, miscarriages and stillborns, along with premature aging and other debilitating side effects. In an article, John Pierce Wise Sr., head of the Wise laboratory of environment and genetic toxicology at the University of Southern Maine, wrote: “To put it simply, after a sudden insult like an oil spill, once it’s over, it takes a long time for the population effects to fully show themselves.”

Other letters and articles raise similar concerns about the impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the food course for whales and dolphins.

These findings make an excellent case for alternative green energy, but the offshore wind farm developers are not off the hook. According to Dr. Baumgartner, the right whale is a social animal and relies heavily on its sense of sound to communicate with other whales for courtship and food. It is well documented in studies from Europe that some of the major environmental concerns related to offshore wind developments are increased noise levels, along with risk of collisions, pollution from increased vessel traffic, among other things.

In a 2017 article, Dr. Ingrid Biedrton from Oceans wrote: “North Atlantic right whales can’t take any more noise in their environment.” On the marine mammal commission’s website, pile driving is considered a threat to the right whale.

Since the right whale is already threatened, will the construction of off shore wind farms cause further stressed on an already declining right whale population? Dr. Baumgartner said he didn’t know.

According to Dr. Mark Baumgartner, beginning in 2010 gear entanglements and ship strikes seem to be the leading culprit to the right whale’s decline. But are there other factors to look at as well?

Susan Larsen lives in Chilmark.