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North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info

Status

ESA Endangered - throughout its range
MMPA Depleted - throughout its range
CITES Appendix I - throughout its range

Species Description

Weight:
up to 70 tons (140,000 lbs; 63,500 kg)
Length:
about 50 feet (15 m);
calves are about 14 feet (4.2 m) at birth
Appearance:
stocky black body, with no dorsal fin, and callosities (raised patches of rough skin) on the head region
Lifespan:
about 50 years, but there are few data on the longevity of right whales. There are indications that closely related species may live over 100 years.
Diet:
zooplankton, including copepods, euphausiids, and cyprids
Behavior:
Unlike other baleen whales, right whales are skimmers; they feed by removing prey from the water using baleen while moving with their mouth open through a patch of zooplankton.

Right whales are large baleen whales. Females are larger than males. Distinguishing features include a stocky body, black coloration (although some have white patches on their bellies), no dorsal fin, a large head (about 1/4 of the body length), strongly bowed lower lip, and callosities (raised patches of roughened skin) on their head. Two rows of long--up to 8 feet (2.4 m)--dark baleen plates hang from their upper jaw, with about 225 plates on each side. Their tail is broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge.

Females give birth to their first calf at about 10 years old. Gestation lasts approximately 1 year. Calves are usually weaned toward the end of their first year. In the coastal waters off Georgia and northern Florida, calving occurs from December through March. (All vessels 65 feet (19.8 m) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in this area during this calving season to reduce the threat of ship collisions.)

It is believed that right whales live at least 50 years, but there are few data on the longevity of right whales. Using cross-sections of teeth is one way to age mammals, but, right whales have no teeth--only baleen. However, ear bones and, in some cases, eye lenses can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died. There are indications that closely related species may live over 100 years.

Right whales generally feed from spring to fall, though, in certain areas, they may also feed in winter. Their primary food sources are zooplankton, including copepods, euphausiids, and cyprids. Unlike other baleen whales, right whales are skimmers; they feed by removing prey from the water using baleen while moving with their mouth open through a patch of zooplankton.

Habitat

Most known right whale nursery areas are in shallow, coastal waters.

Right whales have occurred historically in all the world's oceans from temperate to subpolar latitudes. They primarily occur in coastal or shelf waters, although movements over deep waters are known. Right whales migrate to higher latitudes during spring and summer.

Critical Habitat

We designated critical habitat for the Eubalaena glacialis in 1994 (59 FR 28805), and in January 2016, we expanded the critical habitat areas. There are two critical habitat areas in the North Atlantic:

Distribution

North Atlantic right whales inhabit the Atlantic Ocean, particularly between 20° and 60° latitude.

For much of the year, their distribution is strongly correlated to the distribution of their prey. During winter, right whales occur in lower latitudes and coastal waters where calving takes place. However, the whereabouts of much of the population during winter remains unknown.

The majority of the western North Atlantic population range from wintering and calving areas in coastal waters off the southeastern United States to summer feeding and nursery grounds in New England waters and north to the Bay of Fundy and Scotian Shelf. We identified five "areas of high use" that are key habitat areas for right whales:

The eastern North Atlantic population may originally have migrated along the coast from northern Europe to the northwest coast of Africa. Historic records suggest that animals were heavily exploited by whalers from the Bay of Biscay off southern Europe and Cintra Bay off the northwestern coast of Africa, as well as off coastal Iceland and the British Isles. During the early to mid 1900s, right whales were intensely harvested in the Shetlands, Hebrides, and Ireland. Recent surveys suggest right whales no longer frequent Cintra Bay or northern European waters. Due to a lack of sightings, current distribution and migration patterns of the eastern North Atlantic right whale population are unknown.

Population Trends

It is believed the western North Atlantic population numbers about 450 individual right whales. Recent analysis of sightings data suggests a slight growth in population size, however, North Atlantic right whales remain critically endangered. Read the latest stock assessment report for more information on the right whale population in the western North Atlantic.

Although precise estimates of abundance are not available for the eastern North Atlantic right whales, the population is nearly extinct, probably only numbering in the low tens of animals. It is unclear whether right whales found in the eastern North Atlantic represent a "relict" population or whether all or some of these whales are individuals from the known western North Atlantic population.

Threats

They also face natural threats from predators, such as large sharks and killer whales, which may affect the population.

Conservation Efforts

Right whales were first protected by the 1931 Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which took effect in 1935. However, neither Japan nor the Soviet Union signed this agreement, so they were theoretically free to kill right whales.

In 1949, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling This link is an external site. protected right whales from commercial whaling.

In U.S. waters, right whales were determined to be in danger of extinction in all or a significant portion of their range due to commercial over-utilization. As a result, they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in June 1970, the precursor to the ESA. The species was subsequently listed as endangered under the ESA in 1973 and, thus, designated as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

We have taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of ship collisions, including:

To address entanglement in fishing gear, we established the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. This team developed a plan to reduce the incidental serious injury and mortality of right whales, as well as humpback, fin, and minke whales in the South Atlantic shark gillnet fishery, the Gulf of Maine and Mid-Atlantic lobster trap/pot fishery, the Mid-Atlantic gillnet fishery, and the Gulf of Maine sink gillnet fishery.

Federal law [pdf] and Massachusetts state law This link is an external site. prohibit approaching a right whale closer than 500 yards unless permitted by NOAA or unless one of the limited exemptions applies.

Recovery Plan
Northern Right Whale Recovery Plan (1991):
The Northern Right Whale Recovery Team was appointed in July 1987. A Draft Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (including both the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales) was distributed for public comment in February 1990. Comments were received from Federal, state and local governments, conservation organizations, and private individuals. Appropriate comments were incorporated into the plan.

In December 1991, we approved the Final Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (including both the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales). It identified known and potential factors affecting the right whale and recommended actions to reduce or eliminate impacts to the species.

We published a revised recovery plan [pdf] in 2005 for right whales in the North Atlantic.

The ultimate goal of the plan is to recover the species, with an interim goal of down-listing their status from "endangered" to "threatened."

The major actions recommended in the plan are:

Regulatory Overview

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1970. (It was originally listed as the "northern right whale" under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the precursor to the ESA, in June 1970). They are also designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

We designated critical habitat for the Eubalaena glacialis in 1994 (59 FR 28805).

We established regulations to reduce the likelihood of deaths and serious injuries from ship collisions to endangered North Atlantic right whales. All vessels 65 ft (19.8 m) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in certain locations along the east coast of the U.S. at certain times of year.

In 2008, we listed the endangered "northern right whale" (Eubalaena spp.) as two separate, endangered species: the North Pacific right whale (E. japonica) and North Atlantic right whale (E. glacialis) (73 FR 12024).

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
GenusEubalaena
Speciesglacialis

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Title Federal Register Date

Final Rule to expand critical habitat

81 FR 4837 01/27/2016
Proposed Rule to expand critical habitat 80 FR 9314 02/20/2015

NOAA extends rule reducing risk of whale ship strikes along U.S. East Coast

78 FR 73726 12/09/2013
Proposed Rule To Eliminate the Expiration Date Contained in the Rule To Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions With North Atlantic Right Whales 78 FR 34024 06/06/2013
5-year Review of North Atlantic right whale [pdf]   08/2012
5-year review initiated for North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales 77 FR 16538 03/21/2012
Findings on petition to revise critical habitat 75 FR 61690 10/06/2010
Final Rule To Implement Speed Restrictions to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions With North Atlantic Right Whales 73 FR 60173 10/10/2008
ESA Listing Rule to List North Atlantic and North Pacific Right Whales as Separate Species (previously listed as "Northern Right Whales") 73 FR 12024 03/06/2008
Status Review: Right Whales in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans n/a 12/2006
Recovery Plan (as revised in 2005) 70 FR 32293 06/02/2005
Federal Regulations Governing the Approach to North Atlantic Right Whales 69 FR 69536 11/30/2004
Critical Habitat Designation: North Atlantic 59 FR 28805 06/03/1994
ESA Listing Rule (Northern Right Whales) 35 FR 18319 12/02/1970
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information

Updated: April 18, 2016