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 about 400 whales 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. Right whales are baleen whales, feeding on shrimp-like krill and small fish by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, which 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. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are among the leading causes of North Atlantic right whale mortality.
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. Today researchers estimate there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales in the population with fewer than 100 breeding females left. Only 12 births have been observed in the three calving seasons since 2017, less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate for right whales. This, together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017 (part of a declared Unusual Mortality Event), accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births in this population.
- Throughout Its Range
CITES Appendix I
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
North Atlantic right whales have stocky black bodies with no dorsal fin, and their spouts are shaped like a “V.” Their tails are broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge. Their stomachs and chests may be all black or have irregularly 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, which appear white because of whale lice (cyamids). Each right whale has a unique pattern of these callosities. Scientists use these patterns to identify individual whales, an invaluable tool in tracking population size and health. Aerial and ship-based surveys and the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s photo-identification database maintained by our partners at the New England Aquarium help track populations over the years using a right whale’s unique pattern of callosities.
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.
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.
Right whales migrate seasonally and may travel alone or in small groups. In the spring, summer, and into fall, many of these whales can be found in waters off New England and further north into the Canadian Maritimes, where they feed and mate.
Each fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from these feeding grounds to the shallow, coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. These waters in the southern United States are the only known calving area for the species—an area where females regularly give birth during winter. While this is the typical pattern, migration patterns vary for some of these whales.
NOAA Fisheries has designated two critical habitat areas 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
Right whales can probably live at least 70 years, but data on their average lifespan is limited. 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. However, female North Atlantic right whales are now only living to around 45 and males only to around 65.
In recent years, we've recorded more deaths among adult females than males. There are now more males than females in the population, and that gap is widening. Females, by going through the energetic stress of reproduction, are more susceptible than males to dying from entanglement or ship strike injuries. Today, we believe there are about 95 reproductively active females.
Female right whales become sexually mature at about age 10. They give birth to a single calf after a year-long pregnancy. Three years is considered a normal or healthy interval between right whale calving events. But now, on average, females are having calves every 6 to 10 years. In the last three calving seasons (2017-2019) there were only 12 births, which is about one-third of the average annual birth rate. Biologists believe that the additional stress caused by entanglement is one of the reasons that females are calving less often.
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. Becoming entangled in fishing gear can severely stress and injure a whale, and lead to a painful death. Studies suggest that more than 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, and about 60 percent have been entangled multiple times.
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 and other vessels.
Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of right whales and interferes with their communication.
In the Spotlight
The North Atlantic right whale is NOAA Fisheries' newest Species in the Spotlight. This initiative is a concerted, agency-wide effort to spotlight and save marine species that are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future.
North Atlantic right whales, which got their name from being the “right” whales to hunt because they floated when they were killed, have 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. NOAA and our partners are continuing to prioritize stabilizing and preventing extinction of this species, and this Species in the Spotlight designation will help focus federal and non-federal resources on these many efforts.
Right Whales’ Role in a Balanced Ecosystem
The natural system is balanced through food webs and nutrient transport, with every species contributing to that balance. Right whales play an important role in this balanced ocean ecosystem.
The majority of the Earth's oxygen is produced by marine phytoplankton. These tiny ocean plants also help to absorb CO2, so healthy phytoplankton levels also help to combat climate change. When they defecate at the surface, marine mammals such as right whales provide essential nitrogen and phosphorus to those phytoplankton.
When whales die, they also provide essential nutrient resources to the ocean floor ecosystems. Scavengers consume the soft tissue in a matter of months. Organic fragments, or detritus, enrich the sediments nearby for over a year, and the whale skeleton can provide habitat for invertebrate communities for decades.
Better understanding right whales’ behavior and biology also provides us with information about changing ocean conditions, giving us insight into larger environmental issues that could have implications for human health.
Sometimes we don’t know how vital a species’ role is in maintaining this balance until it’s too late, and sometimes those unforeseen impacts can have a direct effect on our own existence. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act recognize that managing species to make sure they can fulfill their role in the bigger picture is to everyone’s benefit. A diverse environment is a healthier environment. It’s part of our responsibility as stewards of the nation’s living marine resources to make sure that we protect right whales and have healthy fisheries.
NOAA’s Commitment to Right Whale Recovery
As the federal agency with the lead on recovering the North Atlantic right whale population, we believe that the right steps, people, and knowledge are in place to help us make decisions that will contribute to recovery and reduce entanglement risk significantly. Our mandate under the Marine Mammal Protection Act has provided the structure, through the Take Reduction Process, to make sure all voices on this issue are heard and that innovation comes from the people who will be most impacted by future regulatory action.
Under the Endangered Species Act, we are looking at how the threats right whales face impact their recovery and how we manage those threats to facilitate their recovery.
Where They Live
North Atlantic right whales are found mostly along the Atlantic coast in shallower waters. Each fall, some right whales travel more than 1,000 miles from their feeding grounds along the coasts of Canada and New England to the warm coastal waters of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Here they give birth and nurse their young.
Today researchers estimate there are about 400 North Atlantic right whales in the population with fewer than 100 breeding females left. Only 12 births have been observed in the three calving seasons since 2017, less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate for right whales. This, together with an unprecedented 30 mortalities since 2017 (part of a declared Unusual Mortality Event), accelerates the downward trend that began around 2010, with deaths outpacing births in this population.
Entanglement in vertical buoy lines, or ropes, connected to fishing gillnets, traps, and pots on the ocean floor is one of the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales. NOAA Fisheries and our partners estimate that over 85 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once. 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. Biologists believe that this additional stress is one of the reasons that female right whales are having fewer calves; females used to have calves every 3 to 5 years, and now are having calves every 6 to 10 years.
Ship strikes are a second major threat to right whales. Their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic coastline and often overlap with shipping lanes, making them vulnerable to collisions with ships. These collisions can cause broken bones and massive internal injuries or cuts from vessel propellers. As large as right whales are, most vessels are larger, and the faster a vessel is going when it hits a whale, the higher the likelihood of serious injury or death.
Underwater noise from human activities such as shipping, recreational boating, development, and energy exploration has increased along our coasts. Noise from these activities can interrupt the normal behavior of right whales and interfere with their communication with potential mates, other group members, and their offspring. Noise can also reduce their ability to avoid predators, navigate and identify physical surroundings, and find food.
NOAA Fisheries formed a recovery team of scientists and stakeholders to help develop a North Atlantic right whale recovery plan, which was finalized in 2005. The recovery plan helps guide our efforts to prevent extinction of the right whale. These strategies include reducing vessel collisions and fishing gear entanglement, protecting whale habitat, maximizing efforts to free entangled right whales, and monitoring the population. NOAA Fisheries appointed a recovery team in the Northeast and a team in the Southeast to implement the recovery plan. Partnerships are a critical component of North Atlantic right whale recovery.
Critical Habitat Designation
NOAA Fisheries has designated critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale, which includes a foraging area in the Northeast and a calving area in the Southeast. This designation means that federal agencies must ensure that any activities in these areas do not adversely modify those areas.
Reducing Vessel Strikes
The most effective way to reduce the threat of vessel collisions with North Atlantic right whales is to keep whales and traffic apart. If that is not possible, the next best option is for vessels to slow down and keep a lookout. NOAA Fisheries has taken a number of steps to reduce this threat such as:
- Requiring ships to slow down in specific areas (Seasonal Management Areas) based on right whales’ migration patterns and timing.
- Asking vessels to slow down when whales are seen in an area outside of these Seasonal Management Areas.
- Modifying international shipping lanes.
- Developing right whale sighting and alert systems.
- Requiring large ships to report when they enter key right whale habitats. In return, the vessel receives a message about right whales, precautionary measures to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.
- 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.
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, environmental organizations, and state and federal officials. The Team’s Take Reduction Plan requires commercial fishermen to use certain fishing gear types that are less harmful to right whales, and specifies areas where fishing cannot take place when whales are present.
The main focus of our entanglement reduction effort has been to understand where along the East Coast the risk of entanglement is greatest and to reduce line in the water column that could pose a risk to right whales.
Because we have evidence that trap/pot and gillnet fishing gear pose the greatest risk of entanglement to large whales, we have several seasonal fishing closures during times when we know whales will be present. We’ve also required that fishermen use sinking groundline in between their traps and between gillnet panels and the anchoring system. Before that decision, the line would float, sometimes meters off the ocean floor, and whales traveling in between the traps or between gillnets and anchors and would get caught in the line. Sinking groundline is not in the water column, which reduces the risk of entanglement.
We’ve also taken steps to reduce the number of endlines. Endlines connect the first and last traps to the buoys that sit at the surface. By fishing with only one endline where safety allows it, or adding more traps to a set, we’ve managed to reduce the number of endlines. Again, any fishing line removed from the water column helps reduce the risk of entanglement.
All in all, our measures have helped to remove around 42,000 miles of fishing line from the water column across the entire U.S. Atlantic region. That’s enough line to circle the Earth one and a half times. Removing fishing line from the water undoubtedly removes risk of entanglement for right whales and other protected species, even if statistically these benefits are hard to see.
In addition, when entangled whales are reported anywhere along the East Coast, the NOAA-funded Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network is called upon to try to help. The Network is made up of emergency responders from 20 public and private organizations who have extensive training in how to disentangle large whales and increase their odds of surviving. Examining gear removed from entangled animals is one of the key ways for us to determine whether regulations are working and fishing gear modifications are effective.
Overseeing 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.
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.
Right whales are protected under both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) 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. Two regional North Atlantic right whale recovery plan implementation teams were established to assist with issues related to the status and conservation of right whales.
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. Rather, 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 the Northeast and a calving area in the Southeast:
Reducing Vessel Strikes
The most common vessel-related threats to right whales are blunt force trauma and propeller cuts. Collisions between whales and large vessels often go unnoticed and unreported, even though whales can be injured or killed and ships can sustain damage.
Reducing vessel speeds where whales are present, developing recommended shipping lanes outside of specific ports, making mariners aware when whales are around, and implementing a 500-yard “no-approach” safety zone around right whales are among the measures we use to reduce these threats.
Specifically, 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.
Implementing Vessel Speed Restrictions for North Atlantic Right Whales
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. There are several areas, known as seasonal management areas, along the U.S. 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 area. The idea behind the 10-knot limit is that the more slowly a vessel goes, the more time the whale has to get out of the way, and a strike at that speed is less likely to be fatal. We have fined companies for violating these speed reductions.
Outside of these areas, if three or more right whales are sighted within 75 nautical miles of each other, we implement a short-term voluntary speed reduction area around those whales and do our best to get the word out to all vessels to use extra caution in these areas. Unfortunately, studies have found that these voluntary measures are not very effective in modifying vessel speed or direction of travel, and therefore likely do little to reduce vessel collisions.
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 one of 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
Entanglement in fishing gear is a primary cause of serious injury and death for many whale species, including the North Atlantic right whale. With the help of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team—a group of advisors consisting of fishermen, scientists, and state and federal officials—we have developed management measures to reduce whale entanglements. 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.
In addition, when entangled whales are reported anywhere along the East Coast, the NOAA-funded Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network is called upon to try to help. The network is made up of emergency responders from 20 public and private organizations who have extensive training in how to disentangle large whales and increase their odds of surviving. The Network has successfully disentangled close to 30 North Atlantic right whales over the years. And examining gear removed from entangled animals is one of the key ways for us to determine whether regulations are working and fishing gear modifications are effective.
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.
Key Actions and Documents
Incidental Take Authorization: Orsted Wind Power LLC Site Characterization Surveys for Renewable Energy off the Coast of New England in the Areas of
Incidental Take Authorization: Deepwater Wind New England LLC Marine Site Characterization Surveys for Renewable Energy off the Coast of Rhode Island
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.
We use a variety of methods to determine where right whales are located, including aerial surveys (planes), directed shipboard surveys, underwater acoustic listening devices, habitat modeling, and anecdotal sightings reports. To better inform the public of the most recent right whale sightings, NOAA scientists maintain a Right Whale Sightings database. Our database includes more than 40 years of reliable sightings data, spanning the entire range of the species from Canada through Florida.
NOAA is working hard to develop a tracking device that will stay attached to right whales and not compromise the health of these animals. Right whales present a unique challenge to tagging efforts because they are social animals that often engage in physical contact with each other, putting tremendous stress on tags attached to their bodies.
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 collect photographic and genetic identification. Information from this research can be used to inform management actions that protect the North Atlantic right whale.
The goals of many of our aerial and shipboard surveys are to photograph as many individual right whales as possible, so we concentrate on places where we are most likely to find them at the surface, aggregating to feed or engage in social behaviors. This helps us most accurately estimate the population size and monitor population trends. The photographs and other data collected when the image is made (time, date, location, behavior) are used by researchers around the region to investigate things like body condition, behavior, and life history. Over time, these data can also reflect changes in distribution.
If the whales aren’t feeding or socializing at the surface, their behavior can make them hard to spot from a plane or large research vessel (for example, if they’re engaged in deep dives or traveling while submerged). Sea state and weather also make it more complicated to spot individual right whales from a plane.
We use underwater microphones to listen for right whale calls. This is another way to learn more about where and when these whales are present in different areas (at least during times they are vocalizing) where visual surveys are not likely to be effective. For example, while we do not generally send planes up in the winter to look for right whales, acoustic detections have shown that at least some right whales can be detected year-round in locations we thought were once only seasonally used.
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 using autonomous gliders and passive acoustic arrays to locate cetaceans.
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
To understand the health of North Atlantic right whale populations, scientists study unusual mortality events (UMEs). 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 the data in an annual stock assessment report.
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NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-44 Published Date: 2010
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North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Plan Southeast Implementation Team Meeting Summary and Outcomes, November 2017
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