Preparations are being made for what researchers are calling a turnaround year for a species in crisis.

After the death of 17 endangered North Atlantic right whales in 2017 and another in January, researchers say this year will be critical for the remainder of the species.

"With where right whales are now, the numbers are pretty alarming," says Moira Brown of the New England Aquarium.

Brown has spent most of the last 30 years studying right whales and says the death toll last year along the East Coast was unprecedented.

"If it continues, this population could be what's called functionally extinct within 23 years and what that means there simply will not be enough adult reproductive females left to produce calves.”

Brown says the speed limits put in place last year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence helped to protect the whales, but other issues still remain.

"We have had some success at reducing vessel strikes throughout their range, and that's a positive thing, but the entanglement problem is a serious one and it needs an urgent fix and I think we all agree, there isn't a single fix for this,” she says.

Last month, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced new restrictions on rope use in the snow crab fishery aimed at reducing whale entanglements. 

At this point it remains unclear what will happen in the coming year when a right whale becomes entangled in fishing gear. Volunteer whale rescue groups have been in limbo, since the death of one of those volunteers last summer.

The Campobello Whale Rescue group says it is ready to resume work should they be given the go ahead from federal authorities.

"It certainly would help if we get an indication that we have their blessing to go ahead and carry on doing the disentanglement work,” said Kerry Conway of the Campobello group. “Again I emphasize we've been very successful in the past."

"Nobody wants to see a repeat of 2017,” says Brown. “There are a tremendous number of people on both sides of the border trying to figure out how to deal with 2018. How to get the data we need to better understand this new habitat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and to see if the right whales stay there."

With files from CTV Atlantic’s Mike Cameron.