North Atlantic Right Whale
About the Species
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, with only an estimated 450 remaining. Two other species of right whale exist in the world’s oceans: the North Pacific right whale, which is found in the Pacific Ocean, and the southern right whale, which is found in the southern hemisphere. These whales are baleen whales, feeding on shrimp-like krill and small fish by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates that act like a sieve.
By the early 1890s, commercial whalers had hunted right whales in the Atlantic to the brink of extinction. Whaling is no longer a threat, but human interactions still present the greatest danger to this species. The leading causes of known mortality for North Atlantic right whales are entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
NOAA Fisheries and our partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding the North Atlantic right whale population. We use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and rescue these endangered whales. We engage our partners as we develop regulations and management plans that foster healthy fisheries and reduce the risk of entanglements, create whale-safe shipping practices, and reduce ocean noise.
North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970. The North Atlantic right whale population is very small and, consequently, its status can change quickly. According to the most recent North Atlantic right whale stock assessment report (PDF, 299KB), the western North Atlantic right whale population numbered at least 440 individuals as of 2012.
- Throughout Its Range
CITES Appendix I
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
North Atlantic right whales have a stocky black body, with no dorsal fin. Their tail is broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge. The stomach and chest may be all black or have irregular-shaped white patches. Pectoral flippers are relatively short, broad, and paddle-shaped. Calves are about 14 feet at birth and adults can grow to lengths of up to 52 feet.
Their characteristic feature is raised patches of rough skin, called callosities, on their heads that appear white because of whale lice (cyamids). Each right whale has a unique pattern of these callosities. Scientists are able to use these patterns to identify individual whales, an invaluable tool to understand population size and health. Aerial and ship-based surveys help track populations over the years using a right whale’s unique pattern of callosities and a photo-identification database maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium.
Behavior and Diet
When viewing right whales, you might see these enormous creatures breaching—propelling themselves up and out of the water—and then crashing back down with a thunderous splash. You might also see them slapping their tails (lobtailing) or their flippers (flippering) on the water’s surface.
Right whales migrate seasonally and may travel alone or in small groups. In the spring, summer, and fall they are found in their northern habitats, where they feed and mate. During winter, pregnant females give birth in the only known North Atlantic right whale calving area off the southeastern United States.
Groups of right whales may be seen actively socializing at the water’s surface, known as surface-active groups or SAGs. Mating occurs in SAGs, observed during all seasons and in all habitats, but SAGs likely serve other social purposes as well.
Right whales produce low-frequency vocalizations best described as moans, groans, and pulses. Scientists suspect that these calls are used to maintain contact between individuals, communicate threats, signal aggression, or for other social reasons.
Right whales feed by opening their mouths while swimming slowly through large patches of minute zooplankton and copepods. They filter out these tiny organisms from the water through their baleen, where the copepods become trapped in a tangle of hair-like material that acts like a sieve. Right whales feed anywhere from the water’s surface to the bottom of the water column.
Where They Live
North Atlantic right whales primarily occur in Atlantic coastal waters or close to the continental shelf, although movements over deep waters are known. Most known right whale nursery areas are in shallow, coastal waters.
Each Fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds off the Canadian Maritimes and New England to the warm coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. These southern waters are the only known calving area for the species—an area where they regularly give birth and nurse their young. NOAA Fisheries has designated two critical habitat areas determined to provide important feeding, nursery, and calving habitat for the North Atlantic population of right whales:
- Off the coast of New England (foraging area).
- Off the southeast U.S. coast from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to below Cape Canaveral, Florida (calving area).
Lifespan & Reproduction
Females do not become sexually mature until they are around 10 years old. They give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. From 1987 through 1992, there were only 51 known actively reproducing females. During that same timeframe, females gave birth around every four years (three years is considered a normal or healthy interval between right whale calving events).
Right whales can probably live at least 70 years, but there are few data on their average lifespan. Ear wax can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died. Another way to determine life span is to look at groups of closely related species. There are indications that some species closely related to right whales may live more than 100 years.
Entanglement in fishing lines attached to gillnets and traps on the ocean floor is one of the greatest threats to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Floating lines between traps are particularly dangerous, since they can form loops that a whale can be caught in. Becoming entangled in fishing gear can severely stress and injure a whale, and lead to a painful death. Reports suggest that over 85 percent of right whales have entanglement scars.
Vessel strikes are a major threat to North Atlantic right whales. Their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic seaboard and often overlap with shipping lanes, making the whales vulnerable to collisions with ships.
Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of right whales and interferes with their communication.
Right whales are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They have been listed as endangered under the ESA since 1970. This means that North Atlantic right whales are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range. NOAA Fisheries is working to protect this species in many ways, with the goal that its population will increase.
Recovery Planning and Implementation
Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries is required to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of listed species. The ultimate goal of the North Atlantic right whale plan is to recover the species, with an interim goal of down-listing its status from endangered to threatened.
The major actions recommended in the plan are:
Reduce or eliminate injury and mortality caused by vessel collisions or by fisheries and fishing gear.
Protect habitats essential to the survival and recovery of the species.
Minimize effects of vessel disturbance.
Continue international ban on hunting and other directed take.
Monitor the population size and trends in abundance of the species.
Maximize efforts to free entangled or stranded right whales and acquire scientific. information from dead specimens.
The ESA authorizes NOAA Fisheries to appoint recovery teams to assist with the development and implementation of recovery plans. The North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan Southeast U.S. Implementation Team was established to assist with issues related to the status and conservation of right whales in this region.
Critical Habitat Designation
Once a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries evaluates and identifies whether any areas meet the definition of critical habitat. Those areas may be designated as critical habitat through a rulemaking process. The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, wilderness reserve, preservation, or other conservation area; nor does the designation affect land ownership. Federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect these designated critical habitat areas are required to consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure that their actions do not adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.
Critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale includes two areas—a foraging area in Northeast and a calving area in the Southeast:
Reducing Vessel Strikes
Collisions between whales and large vessels often go unnoticed and unreported, even though whales can be injured or killed and ships can sustain damage. We have taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of vessel collisions to North Atlantic right whales, including:
Requiring vessels to slow down in specific areas during specific times (Seasonal Management Areas).
Advocating for voluntary speed reductions in Dynamic Management Areas.
Recommending alternative shipping routes and areas to be avoided.
Modifying international shipping lanes.
Developing right whale alert systems.
Developing mandatory vessel reporting systems.
Increasing outreach and education.
Improving our stranding response.
The most effective way to reduce collision risk is to keep whales and vessels apart. If that is not possible, the next best option is for vessels to slow down and keep a lookout.
Implementing a Mandatory Vessel Reporting System for North Atlantic Right Whales
To further reduce the number of vessel strikes, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard developed and implemented a mandatory vessel reporting system for North Atlantic right whales. When large vessels enter two key right whale habitats—one off the U.S. northeast coast and one off the U.S. southeast coast—they must report to a shore-based station. In return, the vessel receives a message about right whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.
Implementing Right Whale Sighting and Notice Systems
To reduce collisions with right whales, mariners are urged to use caution and proceed at safe speeds in areas where right whales occur. NOAA Fisheries and our partners developed an interactive mapping application that provides up-to-date information on North Atlantic right whale sightings along the East Coast of the United States:
Addressing Ocean Noise
Underwater noise threatens whale populations, interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to intense underwater sound in some settings may cause some whales to strand and ultimately die. NOAA Fisheries is investigating all aspects of acoustic communication and hearing in marine animals, as well as the effects of sound on whale behavior and hearing. In 2016, we issued technical guidance for assessing the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals’ hearing.
Reducing Entanglement in Fishing Gear
NOAA Fisheries has developed management measures to reduce whale entanglements with the help of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team—a group of advisors consisting of fishermen, scientists, and state and federal officials. Entanglement in fishing gear is a primary cause of serious injury and death for many whale species, including the North Atlantic right whale. We require commercial fishermen to use certain gear types that are less harmful to North Atlantic right whales, and have established areas where fishing cannot take place during certain times when North Atlantic right whales are present. We are currently developing management measures to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water column in an effort to further reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings including large whales. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
NOAA Fisheries developed a recovery plan in 1991 and updated it in 2005. This plan helped guide our efforts to establish critical habitat to protect the species in important breeding and feeding areas. In addition, we have taken steps to reduce threats to the species, such as regulating:
How close a vessel or aircraft may get to a right whale. This reduces disturbance to the animal and the potential for negative interaction.
How fast vessels 65 feet (19.8 meters) or longer may travel in seasonal management areas at certain times of the year. This reduces the likelihood of deaths and serious injuries from vessel strikes.
Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan
Along with vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing lines is one of the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales. The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan aims to address this threat. The plan’s regulations include measures to reduce the amount of fishing gear in portions of critical habitat, as well as time and area closures to reduce interactions between fishing activity and whales in areas where concentrations of whales and gear are the highest. In addition, the plan emphasizes the importance of disentanglement operations and examining gear removed from entangled animals to determine whether regulations are working and gear modifications are effective.
Regulatory Actions & Documents
Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan’s Massachusetts Trap/Pot Restricted Area and the Great South Channel Trap/Pot Restricted Area
- Final Rule, 2016 revision
- Proposed Rule, 2015
- 90-day Finding and 12-month determination, 2010
- Final Rule, 1994
- Final Rule, Eliminating Expiration Date
- Proposed Rule, Eliminating Expiration Date
- Final Rule Implementing Speed Restrictions
NOAA Fisheries conducts various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the North Atlantic right whale. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this endangered species.
Scientists use small aircraft to spot North Atlantic right whales and photograph them to identify individuals, and record their seasonal distribution. Understanding the whales’ migration patterns helps managers establish measures to reduce vessel strikes and limit the overlap between fisheries and whales. NOAA Fisheries and our partners also use small unmanned aircraft systems—commonly called “drones”—to assess individual right whale size and body condition, as well as taking breath samples to analyze factors such as genetics and stress hormones.
In addition to aerial surveys, we conduct research cruises that investigate the whales’ habitat preferences and feeding ecology, as well as conducting photographic and genetic identification. Information from this research can be used to inform management actions that protect the North Atlantic right whale.
Other research is focused on the acoustic environment of cetaceans, including North Atlantic right whales. Acoustics is the science of how sound is transmitted. This research involves increasing our understanding of the basic acoustic behavior of whales, dolphins, and fish; mapping the acoustic environment; and developing better methods to locate cetaceans using autonomous gliders and passive acoustic arrays.
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
To understand the health of North Atlantic right whale populations, scientists study unusual mortality events. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs is important because they can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Determining the size of the North Atlantic right whale population—and whether it is increasing or decreasing from year to year—helps resource managers assess the success of the conservation measures enacted. Our scientists collect population information on right whales from various sources and present this data in an annual stock assessment report.
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NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-44 Published Date: 2010
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