Management Overview

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

Recovery Plan

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.

Read the recovery plan for the North Atlantic right whale (PDF, 2.5MB).


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. 

Learn more about the Southeast U.S. Implementation Team

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.

NOAA Fisheries designated critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale in 1994 (59 FR 28805) and revised the designation in 2016 (81 FR 4838).

Critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale includes two areas—a foraging area in Northeast and a calving area in the Southeast:

Right whale skim feeding.

Right whale skim feeding with baleen clearly visible. Photo: NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center/Elizabeth Josephson.

Conservation Efforts

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. 

Learn more about reducing vessel strikes to North Atlantic right whales

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.

Learn more about the mandatory ship reporting system for North Atlantic right whales

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.

Learn more about ocean noise

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.

Learn more about the take reduction team’s efforts to reduce whale entanglement

Learn more about bycatch and fisheries interactions

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.

Learn more about the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program

Regulatory History

NOAA Fisheries developed a recovery plan (PDF, 2.5MB) 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.

Key Documents

A complete list of regulatory and management documents for North Atlantic right whales is available.