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Whales on the Brink: Making Strides in Marine Mammal Research and Protection

February 01, 2024

NOAA Fisheries and partners convened an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the discovery of the Rice’s whale, and recent advancements in marine mammal research and conservation.

A large group of people smile in front of an ocean-themed backdrop in a museum NOAA staff stand by the new Rice’s whale exhibit (far right) in Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paul Hillman

2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Under this law, NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the conservation and recovery of more than 160 endangered and threatened marine species—including many marine mammals. The Act has been overwhelmingly successful in preventing their extinction during the last 50 years and has also put many species on the path to recovery.

A recent event hosted at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Whales on the Brink: Stories from Rice's Whale Discovery and Right Whale Tales, highlighted the ongoing dedication to this effort. NOAA Fisheries, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Marine Mammal Commission, and other partners organized and supported the event. The goal of the symposium was to bring attention to the plight of three endangered large whale species: Rice's whales, North Pacific right whales, and North Atlantic right whales. Experts from the marine mammal scientific research, conservation, and management communities shared the current state of knowledge and the efforts being undertaken to conserve these species.  

In addition to presentations by NOAA Fisheries staff, there were presentations from several outside partners who work in the Marine Mammal Stranding Network or at academic institutions. We’re grateful to all of them for making this event—and indeed our day-to-day conservation work for large whales—possible! Following are highlights from the NOAA Fisheries team’s contributions to this momentous event.

NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Janet Coit spoke at the symposium before the scientific presentations. She emphasized,

A woman stands at a podium smiling with a slide displayed behind stating "Whales on the Brink: Stories from the Rice's whale Discovery and Right Whale Tales"
NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Janet Coit, opened the event Whales on the Brink: Stories from Rice's Whale Discovery and Right Whale Tales, on November 16, 2023 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Credit: NOAA Fisheries


“If we take action, we can not just prevent extinction, but recover these species. We have a chance to work together to protect what Rachel Carson called ‘the wonder of nature.’ The help of strong science and recovery actions, our strong laws—the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act—all of these will facilitate progress…to recover and conserve these majestic marine creatures.”

New Smithsonian Rice’s Whale Exhibit

The symposium then celebrated with a dedication of a new exhibit about the endangered Rice’s whale. The exhibit tells the story of how the Rice’s whale was recently described as a unique species but is already in great peril. It also shows how a small piece of plastic was likely the cause of one whale’s death. The exhibit, including a piece of Rice’s whale baleen and the piece of plastic, can be viewed in the museum’s Sant Ocean Hall

A museum display including a piece of Rice's whale baleen and a plastic shard found in a Rice's whale stomach.
The new Rice’s whale exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall displays a piece of Rice’s whale baleen and the piece of plastic that was likely the cause of one whale’s death. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Rice’s Whale Science

The Rice’s whale was previously considered to be a subspecies of Bryde’s whale. There are likely fewer than 100 Rice’s whales in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the only location where the species is believed to occur. Low genetic diversity, small population size, and a restricted range makes the loss of any whales particularly significant. 

At the symposium, several NOAA Fisheries scientists presented the latest research and management efforts focused on endangered Rice’s whale. 

A woman stands at a podium with a Smithsonian logo, speaking to an audience about a presentation slide "Rice's whales are baleen whales" with taxonomic tree
Research geneticist Dr. Patricia Rosel from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center presented on how she and her team determined Rice’s whales are a unique species. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Research geneticist Dr. Patricia Rosel from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center presented the genetic and morphological evidence used to determine that Rice’s whales are a unique species. Rosel and NOAA partners told the story of how their teams responded to the stranding of a Rice’s whale in the Florida Everglades in 2019. The stranding, while tragic, ultimately allowed a team to complete the first morphological examination of a complete Rice’s whale skull. This whale would eventually become the individual used to define the species’ unique morphology—that helped them distinguish the species from other closely related baleen whale species.

NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Center Passive Acoustic Ecology Program lead Dr. Melissa Soldevilla presented about Rice’s whale sounds. Listening to their calls over the last decade has led to discoveries about where and when they occur around the Gulf of Mexico. This acoustics research has been critical for identifying the range, distribution, and movement of this endangered species throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The research findings help conservation managers understand what human activities overlap with their distribution. Dr. Soldevilla even shared clips of two unique and spectacular sounding Rice’s whale callsa moment that captivated the audience.

Dr. Lance Garrison, a research fishery biologist at NOAA Fisheries, discussed what we know about Rice’s whale habitat from a recent study. Along with partners, his team identified key oceanographic parameters that define the preferred habitat for these whales that could potentially maximize their foraging opportunities. 

Marine mammal branch chief at NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office Laura Engleby summarized the management strides for this endangered whale. Turning the trajectory from near extinction towards recovery requires knowing and understanding Rice's whales and their threats, and bringing people and expertise together around solutions. Engleby mentioned the NOAA Fisheries recovery outline, which serves as an interim guidance document to direct recovery efforts and planning for the Rice’s whale until we develop and approve a full recovery plan. At NOAA Fisheries, we are committed to working together with the public, stakeholders, and partners towards recovery of Rice’s whales.

A man stands at a podium with a Smithsonian logo in front of an audience presenting "Eastern Pacific right whales: An exploited past and endangered future"
Dr. John Bengston, Marine Mammal Laboratory director at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, presented on the extinction crisis facing the Eastern North Pacific right whale. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paul Hillman

North Pacific Right Whale

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center and Alaska Regional Office presented updates on the North Pacific right whale—one of the rarest of all large whale species. The eastern population, which frequents U.S. West Coast waters, is one of the smallest large whale populations.

North Pacific right whales may face many human and natural threats. But little is known about the degree to which threats are impacting recovery of this small population. North Pacific right whale recovery coordinator Dr. Jenna Malek from the Alaska Regional Office discussed how NOAA Fisheries is using techniques to spread the word about North Pacific right whales. This method heavily emphasizes collaboration and outreach in hopes of gathering more valuable information to aid in recovery actions. 

NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal biologist Jessica Crance discussed the science behind saving this whale population from extinction. Much about this population remains unknown, including migratory routes, breeding grounds, or even basic population demographics. A team at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center uses a variety of techniques to better understand North Pacific right whale distribution and movement patterns, particularly in relation to changing climatic conditions. These include:

  • Year-round, long-term passive acoustic monitoring
  • Modeling their distribution relative to prey and oceanographic conditions
  • Real-time acoustic monitoring at sea to help locate North Pacific right whales

Dr. Anne Marie Eich, Assistant Regional Administrator for the Protected Resources Division, Alaska Region stated,

“Studying North Pacific right whales is really challenging due to weather, size and remoteness of the area, international waters, and scarcity of resources for data analysis. Despite these challenges, NOAA Fisheries works to collect information at every available opportunity to aid in management of the species.”

A North Pacific right whale near the surface of the ocean, seen from above.
North Pacific right whale. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jessica Crance

North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic right whale was also on the minds of attendees. A life-sized model of a North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix that hangs above the new Rice’s whale exhibit in Sant Ocean Hall. It reminded museum goers of the ongoing, long-term efforts to recover another endangered whale.

Endangered North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction. There are approximately 360 individuals remaining, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females. Human impacts continue to threaten the survival of this species. NOAA Fisheries continues to conduct research to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this endangered species. NOAA Fisheries’ North Atlantic Right Whale Road to Recovery encapsulates the ongoing work across the agency and in collaboration with partners to address threats to the species and monitor recovery progress.

A large model of a North Atlantic right whale hangs above several ocean-themed museum exhibits
The life-sized model of a North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix hanging above the new Rice’s whale exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Collaboration Towards Recovery

The presentations listed above are just some of the many talks from other agencies and partners that contribute tremendously to recovery of these, and other, marine mammal species. 

In addition to NOAA Fisheries, there were also presentations from partners and researchers about Rice’s whales and right whales, as well as the overall importance of large whale conservation: 

  • Dr. Kirk Johnson, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
  • Dr. Rebecca Johnson, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
  • Dr. Michael McGowen, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 
  • John Ososky, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History  
  • Dr. Nick Pyenson, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History 
  • Dr. Peter Thomas, Marine Mammal Commission
  • Dr. Frances Gulland, Marine Mammal Commission
  • Dr. Andy Read, Marine Mammal Commission
  • Dr. Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Denise Boyd, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission 
  • Gretchen Lovewell, Mote Marine Lab
  • Keith Rittmaster, North Carolina Maritime Museum/Bonehenge Whale Center
  • Dr. Barb Taylor, International Union for the Conservation of Nature
  • Dr. Matt Leslie, Ursinus College
  • Dr. Jeremy Kiszka, Florida International University
  • Dr. Kathleen Hunt, George Mason University

NOAA Fisheries is grateful to the collaboration of these individuals, and many other partners. Collaboration and strong partnerships with other federal agencies, state agencies, conservation organizations, and the marine industry are necessary to better understand and protect endangered marine mammals. The efforts that pave the way to recovery for these endangered whales are possible due to the support and collaboration of many partners. As a team, we are working to address existing and emerging threats to these species and to monitor their population and health. These steps are critical for tracking the status of threatened and endangered marine mammals. 

At NOAA Fisheries, we rely on the best available science to implement the Endangered Species Act. During this monumental commemoration of 50 years, we and our partners highlight the important science, conservation, partnerships, and people who work together to implement the Act every day.

View recordings of the symposium presentations.

A large inflatable Rice's whale displayed on the National mall next to a Clearwater Marine Aquarium sign
An inflatable model of a Rice’s whale from the Clearwater Aquarium was displayed on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in November 2023. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Last updated by Office of Protected Resources on February 06, 2024