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The Northern Right Whale

M. Lynne Corn 1
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

April 14, 1995

95-493 ENR


Of all the large whale species, the northern right whale is the most endangered. Prized for centuries for its copious oils and baleen ("whalebone"), it was intensely hunted into the 20th century. Fewer than 350 remain in the northwestern Atlantic; a European population was extirpated by the 1500s.(2) Because of this severe depletion, the right whale was the first whale species to receive international protection, beginning in 1935. It is now protected by a host of national laws and international treaties. However, its numbers remain low, even though the California grey whale population has almost tripled under the same laws.(3) Scientists surmise that right whale recovery may be impeded by habitat degradation, propeller and fishing gear injuries and fatalities, and competition for food. In an attempt to boost the population, three key areas of the right whales' range within Federal jurisdiction have been designated as critical habitat. The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering additional measures to reduce harmful human interactions with right whales.

COMMON NAMES: Northern right whale.(4) Also, North Atlantic right whale and black right whale

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Eubalaena glacialis, family Balaenidae (baleen whales)

HISTORIC RANGE: From the coast of Labrador to Delaware Bay, and south to the Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda, and Florida. Also the eastern Atlantic in and around the Bay of Biscay (bordered by France and Spain) down to the northwestern coast of Africa. At least 10,000 and perhaps 50,000 or more right whales used to live in the northern Atlantic Ocean.

CURRENT RANGE: Twentieth century sightings have occurred along Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence River, and Cape Cod Bay to the Carribean Sea. Right whales are no longer seen in certain inshore areas (where they once were common) such as Delaware Bay, Long Island, and in the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador. They are now usually found in five areas including Canada's Bay of Fundy and Browns and Baccaro Banks (south of Nova Scotia), and portions of the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and Massachusetts.

POPULATION TRENDS: The estimated current northwestern Atlantic population is less than 350. Although this species has been protected under various laws for 60 years, the population seems to have remained fairly constant during this time.

HABITAT: Right whales reside in shallow waters that border islands and coastlines. Pregnant cows migrate each year from feeding grounds in the north to the calving grounds located in the southern portion of their range. It is unknown where the rest of the population overwinters, although up to 20 percent may remain in the coastal waters off Massachusetts.

Each winter, between 7 and 17 calves are born along the coast between the mouth of the Altamaha River, Georgia, and Sebastian Inlet (south of Cape Canaveral), Florida. Cows give birth every three to five years.

Right whales eat small invertebrates called krill and copepods, which live in fairly shallow water. To catch these tiny animals, the whales swim open-mouthed to allow the water to pass over their baleen plates, which hang down from the upper jaw and are effective strainers. Fluctuations in the amount and location of available food most likely determine where the whales may be found from year to year; however, they apparently fast during the winter months.

BACKGROUND: Commercial harvest of the right whale for its oil and baleen was a profitable industry for over 800 years. The oil was used in lamps, and more recently, in cosmetics. Baleen was once processed into corset and umbrella ribs, fans, clocksprings, hairbrushes, and riding crops.

Clearly the largest threat to the right whale until recently has been human predation. It was one of the first whale species to be depleted because of its ease of harvest: the whales swim slowly and float when killed. By the 19th century, the species was severely depleted. Since the implementation of protective measures such as the International Whaling Commission ban on right whale hunting in 1949 and more recently, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (see below), only one known deliberate taking of a north Atlantic right whale has occurred.

MAJOR THREATS: The primary human factor which inhibits right whale recovery, is collisions with ships. Other threats include entrapment and/or entanglement in certain types of fishing gear, habitat degradation and reduction, and disturbance from vessels which may alter whale behavior.

The right whale is particularly susceptible to the dangers posed by ships and equipment because of its habits of resting near and on the surface as well as surface courtship and skim-feeding. Vessel encounters accounted for 7 percent of injuries and 28 percent of all known right whale deaths between 1970 and 1994. Oftentimes, the whales are not killed outright but are fatally injured by propeller blades, and eventually die because of impairment or loss of appendage function. Fishing gear that entrap and entangle whales include deep sea lobster lines, ropes, seine nets, fish weirs, and gillnets. Six percent of known right whale deaths between 1970 and 1994 were caused by entanglements, and 57 percent of right whales have scars which are believed to be from fishing gear.

Right whale habitat is being degraded or lost to shipping and military operations in key regions. Furthermore, although the 1994 critical habitat designation (see below) of three feeding and/or nursery grounds may help to curb habitat degradation, the pollution of these areas due to effluents, off-shore oil exploration and production (in the northeastern United States) and phosphorus mining (in the southeastern United States) remains a substantial concern. Pollutants may reduce the abundance of prey and may have toxic effects on the whales themselves.

Another impediment to the whales' comeback is a naturally low rate of reproduction, coupled with a relatively high mortality rate (compared to other whale species) from both human and natural factors. There is also evidence that competition for food with other whale species and some kinds of fish species may be limiting the population's growth. Sei whales, mackerel, and herring (which feed on the same species as right whales) appear to be expanding into former right whale habitat.

Some scientists are concerned that there simply may not be enough animals left for the species to recover. A "genetic bottleneck" within the species has led to inbreeding among the few hundred remaining whales, severely reducing the ability of the whales to reproduce successfully and contributing in part to a high infant mortality rate. Although no specific scientific evidence exists to support the latter concern, a significant bottleneck would hinder the effectiveness of conservation efforts.


International Protection: The right whale was initially protected from hunting in 1935 by a resolution adopted by the League of Nations. In 1949, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned all harvesting of right whales. Additionally, they are now listed under Appendix I of CITES, a treaty observed by 122 nations,(5) including the United States.

Domestic Protection: Right whales are protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Both laws have provisions against harm and harassment of species.(6) Under section 7 of the ESA, all Federal agencies must insure that any activity authorized or funded by the agency is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of an endangered species, such as the northern right whale.

MAJOR AFFECTED AREAS: Two regions located in Canada and three within the United States have been identified as essential to the recovery of the right whale. The three within Federal jurisdiction include coastal Florida and Georgia, Cape Cod Bay, and the Great South Channel south and east of Cape Cod. These areas have been designated as critical habitats recently by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). (See below.)

AFFECTED FEDERAL AGENCIES: NMFS (including the New England and South Atlantic Regional Fishery Management Councils), Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Minerals Management Service, Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, National Ocean Service, Office of Ocean and Coastal Resources Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Navy.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS AND CONTROVERSY: Right whale research within NMFS has been funded by Congress since 1986. Initial appropriations totalled $500,000 in FY1986, and between $200,000-$250,000 for FY1987-1994. In FY1995, NMFS spent $157,000 on a research contract with the New England Aquarium. A panel was convened by NMFS at the end of 1994 to determine future right whale research priorities. (Their report is not yet available.)

The Final Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale was completed in 1991 by NMFS. Recovery Plan Implementation Teams were formed in 1993 in the Southeast United States and in 1994 in New England to identify any actions of Federal agencies that would be needed to implement the objectives of the Plan. The Southeastern Team initiated an education campaign to improve public awareness of the whales and reduce human-induced injuries. It also assisted in the development an Early Warning System which alerts mariners to the presence of right whales to diminish the number of collisions.

A lawsuit filed in June 1994 alleges that the U.S. Coast Guard violated the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Whaling Convention Act by being responsible, without incidental take authority under any of these Acts, for two right whale deaths by Coast Guard ship collisions in the last four years.(7) The plaintiff also claims that the Coast Guard failed to consult with NMFS under section 7 of the ESA. A decision regarding a possible injunction against the Coast Guard is pending.

Critical Habitat Designation and the No-Approach Zone: Effective July 5, 1994, three areas of the right whale's range in the United States were declared to be critical habitat by the NMFS.(8) This designation increases public awareness of the species' plight and strengthens the protection offered by the ESA and the MMPA by insuring that habitat is not modified even when the whales are not present. It also helps to determine which activities (such as wastewater disposal in adjacent wat ers) outside the proscribed area are subject to ESA section 7 consultations.

The designated regions and their functions are:

(1) Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, a primary feeding ground and nursery used from late winter until early spring;

(2) Great South Channel, 45 miles southeast of Cape Cod, a primary feeding ground used from spring until early summer; and

(3) The Atlantic coastline and adjacent waters from the mouth of the Altamaha River in Georgia to Sebastian Inlet (south of Cape Canaveral) in Florida, the only known calving grounds, which are used from late November until early March.

In general, public and private organizations and individuals were in favor of the critical habitat designations. However, some opponents argued that the ruling does not provide enough protection for the whales or adequately meet their biological needs, while others contended that it facilitates the placement of unwarranted or unnecessary restrictions on already-regulated activities.

In October 1994, NMFS was petitioned to establish a protection zone of 500 yards around each right whale. It is surmised that vessel activity, including engine noise and wakes, disturbs the whales and may adversely alter their behavior. The suggested restriction would prevent ships and individuals from approaching the whales and reduce the risk of disturbance and injury from propellers and fishing gear. The proposal is similar to but somewhat broader than rules already in place concerning humpback whales and Steller sea lion rookeries. However, it will likely face criticism from several sources. Commercial whale watching operators may object to a no-approach zone, since it would interfere with their ability to observe the animals.(9) Also, shipping interests may be concerned about the zone's effect on vessel transit as well as any economic burdens created for mariners who would have to adjust their boats' courses to maintain a 500-yard distance from the whales. In addition, the practicality of obeying and enforcing such a regulation is open to question.

In response to both the protection-zone petition and comments from previous hearings, NMFS is soliciting public input about measures to minimize harmful vessel interactions with right whales.(10)


1. Under the supervision of M. Lynne Corn, Jennifer Sekula, B.Sc. (College of William and Mary), researched and contributed to this report.

2. At most, a few hundred right whales exist off the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada; however, this report focuses exclusively on the Atlantic population, which is reproductively isolated from that of the Pacific.

3. However, the lowest estimated number of California grey whales was 8,000 while the right whale population may have included only three breeding females 75 years ago (Hans Neuhauser, Institute of Area and Community Development, the University of Georgia, personal communication). This discrepancy may explain the different recovery responses.

4. The right whale was so named by early whalers, who found that its coastal distribution, slow swimming speed, tendency to float when killed, and other characteristics made it the "right whale to hunt."

5. As of August 1994. See CRS Rept. 94-765, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species: Its Past and Future.

6. However, there are court cases which contest the definition of "take" to include "harm and harassment." For one example, see Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon v. Babbitt, 17 F.3rd 1463 (D.C. Cir. 1994), cert granted, 63 U.S.L.W. 3500 (Jan. 6, 1995) (No. 94-859).

7. Strahan v. Linnon, (D. Mass, Civil Action No. 94-11128; filed June 7, 1994).

8. See "Designated Critical Habitat; Northern Right Whale," 59 Federal Register 28793 (June 3,1994).

9. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts already has a 500-yard no-approach regulation in place (322 Code of Massachusetts Regulations 12.01-12.05), under which a warning citation was issued in 1994 to an overly-zealous whale-watching cruise captain.

10. See "North Atlantic Right Whale Protection," 59 Federal Register 66513 (Dec. 27, 1994).

NCSE Note: On August 31, 1998, The Washington Post published an article "Argentina's Just Right For Rare Whales" by Anthony-Faiola which reported on the recovery of the Southern Right Whale.

"The number of southern right whales has ballooned to about 2,500 from 360 in 1971, and are reproducing at an extraordinary growth rate of about 7 percent per year. The bays along the coast here now harbor almost half of the [right] whales world population.

"Compare that with the currently recorded number of 300 northern right whales, which range off the coast of the United States from Maine to Florida. Their population, up from 250 about 10 years ago, is far more unstable and genetically weak, edging up about 2 percent a year and enduring a far greater rate of infant mortality, whale experts say.

"Although scientists are still at a loss to define the vast diffrence in growth rates, they are leaning toward the most obvious answer: Right whales here [in the south] are confronted with less man-made pollution and commerce that theit northern cousins. . .

"Southern right whales live in sea far less traveled by commercial shipping vessels than their northern cousins, who are of the same genus but are a distinct species bearing slightly different markings.

"Patagonia is sparsely populated, with seven people per square mile, has no large ports or population centers such as New York, Boston or Washington-Baltimore. That also means less pressure from pollution in the waters which scientists believe is causing serious problems for the young of the northern whales, especially their young. . . .

"To maintain the [tourism] industry - and the whales - the Argentines designated the Gulf of San Jose - one of the whales' most important breeding grounds on Peninsula Valdes - a whale reserve, which is strictly monitored . . .

"The whales themselves are considered "living national monuments," the highest level of protection afforded to animals in Argentina. Strict population and zoning limits have been set on the number of people allowed to live in towns here, and the number of whale watching boats and customers are limited by regulation."