10 Things You Should Know About North Atlantic Right Whales

October 17, 2019

The endangered North Atlantic right whale population has been steadily declining for nearly the past decade. Today, researchers estimate that only about 400 right whales are left. Learn more about what we are doing and what you can do to help save right whales.

North Atlantic right whales

Aerial image of North Atlantic right whales. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

1. The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species.

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North Atlantic right whale. Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Image taken under NOAA Research Permit 15488.

Sadly, North Atlantic right whales got their name from being the “right” whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed. Their population has never recovered to pre-whaling numbers. These whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970 and have been experiencing a steady population decline for nearly a decade.

2. Survival of this species depends on no more than one whale death per year. In the past 3 years, at least 30 right whales have died.

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North Atlantic right whale mother and calf. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Image taken under NOAA Research Permit 665-1652.

The birth rate for right whales has been very low the past few years. Only 12 births have been observed in the three calving seasons since 2017. This is less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate for right whales. And deaths have been exceeding births, resulting in a further decline in the population.

3. Entanglement in fishing gear is still is a big issue for right whales.

    More than 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, and the majority (60 percent) have been entangled multiple times. Right whales mostly get caught in the lines that attach fishing gear, like lobster and crab pots or gillnets, to buoys on the surface. These lines can cut into a whale’s body, cause serious injuries, and result in infections and mortality. Even if gear is shed or disentangled, the time spent entangled can severely stress a whale, which weakens it, prevents it from feeding, and saps the energy it needs to swim and feed. Right now, we are focused on addressing the risk of entanglement in vertical lines that connect traps and pots to the surface. This is among the leading threats to right whale survival.

    4. North Atlantic right whales don’t live long enough to die of old age because they are often killed by collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear, two of the leading causes of right whale mortality.

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    Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Image taken under NOAA Research Permit 775-1600-10.

    Female North Atlantic right whales only live to be around 45 and males only to around 65. This is in large part because of human impacts like entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with vessels. These average lifespans are much lower than the 80+ years documented in southern right whales, a similar species that occurs in the southern hemisphere.

    5. Vessel strike and entanglement reduction efforts continue to be critical for reducing right whale deaths.

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    In 2016, a team coordinated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), conducted a necropsy on a right whale calf found off of Massachusetts. Researchers determined that the whale died from a vessel strike. Photo Credit: IFAW, collected under NOAA permit 18786.

    We created speed reduction management areas in 2008 for vessels 65 feet or longer to protect right whales. Mariners must slow down in these areas during seasons when right whale distribution is expected to overlap with major shipping lanes. Since its inception, the rule has reduced right whale vessel strikes, but collisions are still a cause of injury and death for these whales. And we have put regulations in place to reduce entanglement risk to protect right whales. These are important efforts, but we need to do more.

    6. We are continuing to expand our collaborative actions with partners to spur recovery for this species because we cannot do this alone.

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    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researchers deploy a floating buoy for right whale monitoring efforts. WHOI is a key NOAA partner in passive acoustic monitoring. Photo by Matthew Barton © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

    NOAA scientists and policy experts work with North Atlantic right whale recovery teams that include scientists, fishermen, conservationists, and natural resource managers from Florida to Canada. Together, we examine what we know and what we need to know about the biggest threats facing right whales and their health and population dynamics to save them from extinction. Learn more about right whale recovery.  

    7. NOAA Fisheries has authority to make regulations to protect whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.  

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    North Atlantic right whales. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Image taken under the authority of the MMPA

    When we develop regulations to protect whales from the effects of commercial fisheries, we do so with input of the fishermen who will be affected by those regulations. We also incorporate input from scientists, conservationists, and federal and state resource managers through a process called “take reduction." These take reduction team members negotiate to develop measures for reducing entanglement risk that all stakeholders can support.

    8. Right whales have been dying in both U.S. and Canadian waters, so both countries are taking action.

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    Right whale mother and calf, sighted June 8, 2014, during survey.

    NOAA Fisheries is actively collaborating with Canada through ongoing bilateral negotiations on the science and management gaps that are impeding the recovery of North Atlantic right whales in both Canadian and U.S. waters. We meet twice a year to share information on the state of the science for this species as well as management measures that foster healthy fisheries, reduce the risk of entanglements, and create whale-safe shipping practices. 

    9. Right whales are now a part of the “Species in the Spotlight" initiative.

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    North Atlantic right whale during an aerial survey. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

    The NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight initiative brings greater attention and increased resources to save the species we consider among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. Since 2015, this "priority species" effort has been an effective way to focus federal and non-federal resources to safeguard these most endangered species. We hope that adding North Atlantic right whales to the Species in the Spotlight list will similarly help stabilize this declining population.

    10. You can help right whales survive.

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    Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Image taken under NOAA Research Permit 15488.

    Here are some actions you can take to help North Atlantic right whales recover:

    • Report right whale sightings. Please report all right whale sightings from Virginia to Maine to (866) 755-6622, and from Florida to North Carolina at 877-WHALE-HELP ((877) 942-5343). Right whale sightings in any location may also be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via channel 16 or through the WhaleAlert mobile app.
    • Contact Stranding and Enforcement Hotlines. Report a sick, injured, entangled, stranded, or dead right whale to your regional or state professional responders so they can take appropriate action. Call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 to report a federal marine resource violation.
    • Keep your distance if you see a right whale. Boats, aircraft (including drones), people using other watercraft such as surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, and jet-skis, and divers and snorkelers must stay at least 500 yards away.
    • Slow down around right whales. There are several areas along the East Coast where vessels 65 feet or longer must slow to 10 knots or less during times of the year when right whales are likely to be in the areas in large numbers.
    • Stay updated on right whale take reduction and other conservation measures. For accurate information, check your sources or confirm them by reviewing our news and announcements.
    • Participate in public meetings and share your perspectives with Take Reduction Team members who represent your constituency.