Updated: January 2019
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest whale species in the world. With only fewer than 425 individuals remaining, our researchers are working tirelessly to study and protect this critically endangered species.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many right whales are there?
The most current population estimate is 411 as of the end of 2017 (see 2018 NARWC report card). The population has been showing a decline since 2010 (Pace et al. 2017). Of the remaining right whale population, only about 100 are breeding females.
Why is the species called the “right whale”?
North Atlantic right whales were the first large whales to be actively hunted, beginning about 1000 AD. The species is relatively slow-moving and comes very close to shore, allowing early whalers to row out to them in a rowboat. Due to their thick blubber layer, they float when killed, which meant whalers could more easily tow them to shore to retrieve their bounties of whale oil from the blubber and “whalebone,” which are the long baleen plates. The relative ease to catch them and tow them in, as well as their thick blubber and baleen plates, meant that right whales were known as the “right whale” to hunt.
What is the range of the North Atlantic right whale?
Right whales occur primarily within 50 miles of the east coasts of the United States and Canada and range from Florida to Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, with sporadic sightings near Iceland and Greenland and rare sightings in the eastern North Atlantic. Many right whales remain on the northern feeding grounds year-round, but pregnant females and some others head south for the winter to the shallow coastal waters off Florida and Georgia in southeastern United States. That’s where the females give birth to calves—a single calf every three to five years. In spring, those whales migrate north. They spend the summer and early fall months feeding and nursing their calves in the waters off New England and Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence and Bay of Fundy.
Are there right whales in other parts of the world?
There are two other species of right whales—southern right whales and North Pacific right whales. Southern right whales live throughout the Southern Ocean and are found off the coasts of Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The southern right whale population is healthy. Southern right whale populations have grown at a rate of 6 to 7 percent per year and number more than 10,000 individuals. North Pacific right whales are found in offshore waters of the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska, and off the coast of Japan. The North Pacific right whales are not well studied, but photo-id data suggest the population may number less than 100 individuals.
How can you tell individual right whales apart?
Right whales can be identified by natural markings of cornified tissue, called callosities, on top of their heads. These areas of raised tissue are actually inhabited by small amphipods called cyamids—also known as whale lice—which feed off the dead skin of the whale! Each whale has a unique callosity pattern just as humans have unique fingerprints. This is the main method our scientists differentiate between individual whales. Another identifier can be scars from human activities—entanglement and vessel strikes create injuries that can last the whale’s entire lives.
Why don’t scientists tag all the right whales so people can stay out of their way?
The technology does not exist for long-term tags that don’t harm the whales. There have been several efforts over the years to tag right whales both with un-intrusive tags that stick on the skin of the whale and subcutaneous tags that are embedded into whale blubber and sometimes muscle. The tags that stick to the skin simply do not stay on the whale for very long. Tags embedded into the blubber and muscle show clear damage to the individual whales. Some tagged whales have regional and local swelling at the tag site that lasted for years. A study showed that tagged blue whales skipped reproduction, a risk we cannot take in the North Atlantic right whale population. Also, the longevity of these invasive tags is typically only days to weeks so they cannot be used as an approach to notify maritime users of where every right whale is.
What do right whales eat?
Right whales eat zooplankton called copepods—microscopic animals about the size of a grain of rice. In order to get enough of them to make the process of eating worth the energy it takes to swim with their massive mouths open, a process known as skimfeeding, right whales need to find super-dense patches of copepods. Some of these patches can contain more than 300,000 copepods per cubic meter. It’s estimated that a right whale can eat as much as a billion copepods per day—that’s 1 to 2 tons!
What is baleen?
Right whales are in the same suborder as humpback and blue whales—instead of teeth, these whales have long pieces of baleen. A feeding apparatus made up of a series of keratin plates, baleen hangs from the upper jaw of the whale with about 200 plates on each side. In right whales, they can be over 6 feet long. These plates have a dense, hair-like fringe on the inner edge that traps the prey. Baleen from a dead whale can give scientists access to valuable hormonal data that sheds light on the animal’s health while it was alive and whether it had any pregnancies in the last 10 years.
How do right whales feed?
Baleen essentially acts like a huge strainer. Right whales are filter feeders—they swim with their mouths wide open through a dense patch of zooplankton. The prey gets trapped on the matted fringe on the inner edge of the baleen plates, and the water streams out between the plates.
How long do right whales live?
Right whales can live at least as long as humans and possibly much longer. We have two instances of whales being photographed alive and healthy 60 years after their initial sightings! According to the Right Whale Identification Catalog, the oldest right whale currently alive today is Scoop, an adult male first seen in 1956.
Pregnancy and Calving
How many calves have been born over the years?
The number of calves documented each year has ranged from a high of 39 (in 2009) to a low of zero (in 2018). Calf production was lower than normal during two periods: in the 1990s and since 2017.
Why were there no right whale births in 2018?
For the first time since the 1980s, when scientists began studying the population, no right whale calves were spotted during the 2017-2018 calving season. Anderson Cabot Center scientists believe there are a number of reasons that right whale calving has decreased. Many reproductive females have experienced entanglements, which can lead to reduced health and, in turn, reduced reproduction. Additionally, females need a certain level of fat to achieve pregnancy. With climate change, food resources have been shifting in both distribution and quality. As a result, right whale distribution has been changing dramatically. It may take time for females to adapt and rebuild their reserves to achieve pregnancy.
Calving rates have been low before, and the whales came back. Why should we be concerned now?
There have been a couple of short time periods when calving dipped to fairly low numbers and then went back up again. We may see a similar pattern this time around, but 2018 is the first year since surveys began in 1980 that no calves were documented and in 2017 only five calves were born. Coupled with these low calf counts, there has been an increase in the severity of the wounds caused by entanglements and a broad-scale shift in whale distribution. Neither of these other problems occurred during previous reproductive declines.
With such a small population, does genetic inbreeding occur and how does that affect the population?
This species does have relatively low genetic diversity, but what impact that has on the population is unknown. Some populations of other mammals have flourished despite low genetic diversity.
Entanglement and Vessel Strikes
What is entanglement?
Right whales are sometimes called the “urban whale” because so much of their habitat overlaps with human activities, including fishing activities. Entanglement refers to the wrapping of lines, netting, or other man-made materials around the body of an animal. When the strong lines, like those going from the surface buoys down to lobster or crab pots, get caught in a whale’s mouth or wrap around its flippers or fluke, they can cut into the skin and restrict movement. Entanglement in commercial fishing gear can cause significant injuries to whales and directly impacts their ability to feed and swim. The rope slices into flesh and bone, causing infections, injuries, and even partial amputations. The whales can carry the gear around for months, gradually losing weight until they die.
Scientists estimate that 83 percent of all catalogued right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once and some as many as seven times. Since 2009, 58 percent of whale deaths are due to fishing gear entanglements, an increase from the 25 percent between 2000 and 2008.
Where do entanglements occur?
Entanglements occur throughout the right whales’ range and have been documented in waters off the southeast U.S. coast, Mid-Atlantic, Gulf of Maine, and Gulf of St. Lawrence. Basically, wherever fishing gear and whales overlap, there is a risk of entanglement.
Isn’t this primarily a Canadian problem?
Some right whales have shifted into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in recent years, and, as a result, there has been an increase of entanglements especially in snow crab gear. But we know that entanglements occur throughout the coastal waters of the United States and Canada. While the proportion of the observed population entangled each year hasn’t risen, the severity of entanglements has increased. As ropes have gotten stronger, right whales have a harder time freeing themselves from gear. If the ropes prevent them from coming up to the surface to breath, they may die quickly. Other whales who survive the initial entanglement may be badly wrapped in the gear and drag long lengths of ropes for months until succumbing to starvation or exhaustion.
What kind of gear do whales get entangled in?
Most commonly, whales get entangled in pot and gillnet gear. Pot gear is used to catch lobsters, crabs, and hagfish. Gillnets are used to catch a variety of fish species. For North Atlantic right whales, lobster and snow crab gear are the biggest offenders when it comes to entanglement. Using force sensors attached to recovered gear, scientists have been able to calculate the energetic loss imposed by dragging gear, and for a given individual can determine how quickly it might succumb to the entanglement if disentanglement cannot occur.
If whales are successfully disentangled, does the entanglement still have negative effects?
Even nonlethal entanglements take a toll on whales for years. Any entanglement would be stressful for a whale, but depending on the type and weight of the gear, as well as the entanglement configuration, severe injuries can occur and can cause lasting effects even if the whale is disentangled. Entanglements can cause long-term damage to a whale’s heart and immune system and make the animal more susceptible to disease. It may even slow down or stop the reproductive process.
Studies have found that entangled juvenile whales lose an average 50 percent of their blubber and entangled adults lose about 17 percent. Through work with fecal and blow samples, scientists at the Anderson Cabot Center know that entanglements cause “sky-high” stress hormone levels. Entangled whales are under chronic stress with consistently elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This takes a toll on the body. For male whales, the entanglement handicap can mean they aren’t fit enough to compete for a mate. For females, entanglement injuries—and their aftermath—are lengthening the intervals between calving and reducing their survival. Healthy breeding-age females calve every three to six years. But recently, scientists have recorded an average of more than 10 years between breeding events for those females that do survive the entanglement. Right whales need to be healthy to have calves, and entanglement injuries have prevented whales from bulking up and breeding the way they have in the past.
How can you tell that a whale has been entangled?
For some whales, it’s obvious: the entangling gear remains attached. Entangled whales can drag gear for weeks, months, or sometimes even years. For whales that have freed themselves or were freed by rescuers, their brush with fishing gear leaves scars on their body. Entanglement scars, where the ropes rubbed along the skin or cut into the flesh, are often found near the peduncle (tail), mouth/rostrum area, and flippers.
Can fishermen and recreational boaters be trained to disentangle whales if they come across them entangled?
Federal laws prohibit approaching whales closer than 500 yards unless you have a specialized permit allowing a closer approach for research or disentanglement. The best thing to do if you see an entangled whale is to call the entangled whale hotline and provide information to responding parties. 1-866-755-NOAA (6622). When possible, keep the entangled whale in sight until help arrives.
What kind of vessels cause injury or death of right whales?
Collisions with fast-moving large ships are almost always lethal, but even small vessels can seriously injure or kill right whales. This is one of the reasons federal law prohibits approaching whales closer than 500 yards.
Please report all right whale sightings from Virginia to Maine to 866-755-6622, and from Florida to North Carolina to 877-WHALE-HELP.
Right whale sightings in any location may also be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard via Channel 16 or through the WhaleAlert iPhone/iPad app. For more information about ship-strike reduction regulations, please visit nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/shipstrike.
Why would reducing vessel speeds help reduce the frequency of vessel strikes?
Reducing vessel speeds provides vessel operators more time to detect whales, more time to maneuver, and more time for the whale to evade. Also, if a whale is hit when the vessel is going at a slower speed, it may be more likely to survive.
Why don’t right whales move out of the way of ships?
The ocean is a noisy place. It’s possible that right whales don’t hear and avoid ships until it’s too late. Also, their migration takes them all along the U.S. East Coast and up into Canada—an extremely urbanized section of ocean. It’s possible that right whales are near ships so often that they ignore them a large part of the time, only recognizing them as a threat when it’s too late. There’s some evidence that the bows of large ships mask the sound from the engine—a phenomena called the “bow null effect”—which could make it difficult for whales to hear vessels approaching.
Science and Research
What other threats, in addition to entanglement and vessel strikes, exist for right whales?
Although entanglements and vessel strikes are the biggest threats to North Atlantic right whales, they also suffer due to chemical and noise pollution, degrading habitats, declining prey, and even climate change. Underwater noise pollution—from ships, energy infrastructure, and offshore oil and gas surveys—increases the stress hormones in right whales, interrupts their normal behavior, and interferes with their communication. To help combat these threats, scientists conduct a variety of research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the species and use that research to help regulators inform management decisions that will help the right whales recover.
Why do you collect whale feces, blow, and skin samples?
How do you study a 70-ton patient? Any way you can. Biological samples are a treasure trove of information about these hard-to-study animals. Scientists at the Anderson Cabot Center have pioneered the use of fecal and blow samples to examine hormone levels in right whales—an important indicator of health, stress, and reproductive status. By creating a baseline of hormone levels in normal, healthy whales, scientists can compare those to whales that are under stress (including those who are entangled or who have been injured from a vessel strike).
To biopsy a whale, an arrow with a specialized tip that collects a small plug of blubber and skin is shot at the whale’s body using a crossbow. Even though it sounds invasive, the size of the biopsy tip versus the size of the whale makes this akin to a mosquito bite in humans. The vast majority of whales display little or no reaction to this, and the spot heals over quickly. The scientific gains from this endeavor, however, are enormous. Scientists at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, genetically analyze these samples. They are able to genetically identify the whale, determine its sex, potentially find out who the father is (if he’s in the database and the mother is known), and determine relatedness to other whales. These samples help scientists identify a dead animal through skin or bone samples collected from a decaying carcass that has lost the usual external marks that allow us to photographically identify it. Genetics has also helped scientists estimate the original size of the population before commercial hunting and even tell us how few calving females there were at the population’s lowest point. So far, about 70 percent of the population has been sampled.
How can you tell the whales are "stressed"?
Sometimes it’s as easy as looking at a whale. Stressed whales exhibit visual clues, including increased skin lesions and reduced body condition—they are thin. By analyzing blow and fecal samples, scientists can determine levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Research pioneered at the Anderson Cabot Center found that right whales who undergo prolonged entanglements in fishing gear exhibit “sky-high” levels of stress hormones.
Are climate-related changes affecting food sources for right whales?
Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine, a key right whale habitat, are warming 99 percent faster than sea surface temperatures in any other part of the world. There’s evidence that the distribution of right whales’ food source—copepods—is shifting as surface temperatures warm. Scientists have also seen a drop in the nutritive value of copepods in previously rich feeding grounds.
What are whale release ropes?
Scientists at the Anderson Cabot Center studied the breaking strength of ropes retrieved from entangled large whales and found that the smaller species (such as minke whales) and young right whales (0-2 years old) were found in significantly lower breaking strength ropes than the bigger species and adult right whales. As a result of this study, a recommendation was put forward for broad adoption of ropes with a maximum strength of 1700 lbf, which is about half the strength of ropes presently in use. These reduced breaking strength ropes would break when the whale exerted enough force thereby avoiding a complex and potentially lethal entanglement and could reduce the number of life-threatening entanglements for large whales by at least 72 percent. Whale release rope could still provide sufficient strength to withstand the routine forces involved in many fishing operations. A reduction of this magnitude would achieve nearly all the mitigation legally required for U.S. stocks of North Atlantic right and humpback whales.
Two options for whale release rope are being tested. A “finger-trap” method where two pieces of rope are placed in a reduced breaking strength sleeve every 40 feet to create a weak-sleeved rope has been shown to be effective at hauling gear. Another option being tested is a rope that is 1700 lbf breaking strength for the entire length. Anderson Cabot Center scientists will continue to work closely with fishermen to evaluate these options.
What is ropeless fishing technology?
The only surefire way to stop all whales from getting entangled is to remove ropes from the water column. That’s the idea behind ropeless fishing technology. In traditional crab or lobster pots, vertical ropes (“lines”) hundreds of feet long connect traps on the seafloor to buoys at the surface. This is so fishermen can locate their gear to haul it back up. One ropeless fishing technique spools the vertical lines and anchors the spool near the trap at the bottom until the line is released for hauling. Instead of using line attached to a buoy, fishermen would use an acoustic signal to release the spooled line and let it float to the surface. Another technique would use CO2 cartridges that, in response to an acoustic signal, would inflate a bag that would float the trap to the surface without any line involved. Current systems are in testing.
Couldn’t climate change be what’s causing right whale populations to dwindle?
Climate change may well be playing a part in the reduction in calf production in this population, and perhaps in individual whale survival. But we know that entanglements are definitely causing mortality and decreased health. If we can remove or reduce the harm from entanglement, these long-lived animals may be able to adapt to the shifting climate. We have already seen evidence that the right whales are adapting to shifting food distributions as they have moved away from the Bay of Fundy and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the food resource is now stronger.
Saving the Species
Why do we care—would it make any difference to the ocean if there were no whales?
Whales play a vital part of the marine ecosystems in which they live. They’re the farmers of the sea, acting like a pump that recirculates the nutrients in the ocean. Whales often feed on zooplankton at depth and then poop at the surface. Feces are incredibly important to nutrient cycling and delivery in the ocean systems. Whale falls—when a dead whale’s body sinks to the ocean floor—provide tremendous energy into deep-sea communities.
Given all the deaths and lack of births, is it too late to save North Atlantic right whales?
In 1980, a New England Aquarium research team unexpectedly discovered 25 North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy. Before that, scientists believed the right whale was nearly extinct. From 1990 to 2010, the right whale population grew steadily, and scientists believe it can again. North Atlantic right whales are a resilient species. They are long-lived and have prolonged reproductive capabilities. Give them some immediate relief from extrinsic pressures—fishing, pollution, vessel strikes—and we believe they can recover.
What management measures have been put in place to help the population and where?
From 1990 to 2010, the North Atlantic right whale population grew steadily. From temporary fishing area closures when right whales are in the area to regulating ship speeds and routes, there are a number of management measures in place to help protect the endangered right whales. One big success story happened in 2003. Working with government, industry, and environmental stakeholders, Aquarium scientists successfully advocated for a change in shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy to help protect migrating right whales from ship strikes. In doing so, the risk of right whales suffering a ship strike in this region dropped by about 80 percent. Also, in 2008 the federal government enacted a ship-speed rule slowing down ships 65 feet or longer to speeds of 10 knots or less in specific areas during specific times of year (Seasonal Management Areas). This rule has been very effective at reducing the likelihood of a fatal vessel strike.
What can I do to help the right whales?
With the increased focus on the right whale species and its dire situation has come a resounding public call of, “What can we do?” Scientists, engineers, fishermen, shipping companies, and management agencies are moving with urgency to research, test, and implement measures that will reduce right whale mortalities and serious injuries. But what can the general public do? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Be aware of the situation right whales are facing and educate others. People need to understand what little time we have to save these whales.
2. Support local fishermen and organizations who are working to change fishing practices to make their gear whale-safe, such as the South Shore Lobster Fishermen’s Association in Massachusetts.
3. Sponsor a right whale! Virtually adopt one of our sponsorship whales and help support the Right Whale Research Team.
4. Tell your local, state, and federal representatives that you encourage and support policies designed to protect right whales. Vote for candidates who support ocean conservation.
5. Support organizations that are working to improve policies aimed at reducing human impacts on right whales
6. Advocate for bans on single-use plastic bags and Mylar balloons. These items are often seen in right whale feeding areas. Plastics of all types can end up in the ocean and lead to major problems for whales (and other marine animals) if ingested.
7. Boaters should be aware of when whales are in their waters, and slow down to 10 knots or less to reduce the risk of vessel strike. Even small vessels can seriously injure or kill right whales.
8. Before buying seafood at a market or restaurant, ask where it comes from and what that fishery is doing to prevent whale entanglements and deaths. Most sellers will have no idea, but if you ask the question, they will know that it’s important to their customer. And that takes us back to our first suggestion: Educate others! We are hoping to get suppliers to support the idea of only buying from fishermen who use gear that’s safe for whales, so your question may spark conversations between suppliers and fishermen.
We are at a critical crossroad for the North Atlantic right whale population. We know that the species is resilient and can bounce back from the events that have unfolded over the last few years. But, for right whales to be able to do so, we have to minimize or eliminate human-caused serious injury and mortality.
Right Whale Research
Our program, established in 1980, is one of the longest-running and most comprehensive whale research and conservation initiatives in the world. We are a leading institution in developing innovative, science-based approaches to conserving the North Atlantic right whale.
North Atlantic Right Whale Identification Catalog
The Anderson Cabot Center Right Whale Program oversees the North Atlantic Right Whale Identification Catalog. A tremendous collaborative effort of more than 300 individuals and organizations, the Right Whale ID Catalog is the cornerstone of right whale research.
Sponsor a Right Whale
By sponsoring a whale, you are helping our efforts to monitor right whale population status, habitat use, calving rates, and migration patterns and supporting our continued hard work to direct effective management initiatives to save this threatened population.