The North Atlantic right whale is one of the rarest whale species in the world. With 356 individuals remaining, our researchers are working tirelessly to study and protect this critically endangered species.
Our program is one of the longest-running and most comprehensive whale research and conservation initiatives in the world. Established in 1980, we are a leading institution in developing innovative, science-based approaches to conserving the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Our research has been integral to informing national and international efforts to protect these elusive giants.
Once a heavily-targeted commercial whaling species, the North Atlantic right whale remains vulnerable to contemporary human activities, including vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. With 356 whales remaining, this species’ recovery is also threatened by low reproduction, habitat loss, disease, and environmental contaminants.
In 1980, a New England Aquarium research team unexpectedly discovered 25 North Atlantic right whales in the Bay of Fundy. Before the discovery, scientists believed the right whale was nearly extinct. Our researchers have been surveying the Bay of Fundy ever since.
Our field work, including more than 40 years of uninterrupted surveys in the Bay of Fundy, has provided invaluable knowledge about right whale behavior, habitat use, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the population. A major goal of our program is the development and implementation of solutions to reduce the threats of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements, protecting the remaining right whales in our backyard.
About the North Atlantic Right Whales
Right whales feed on zooplankton, microscopic animals that aggregate in dense patches in certain areas of the ocean at certain times of year. The right whale’s preferred prey species is the rice-grain sized Calanus finmarchicus. Right whales are commonly found in areas with ultra-high densities of Calanus. Right whales are considered “grazers,” meaning that they feed by swimming slowly through patches of zooplankton with their mouths open and strain the water out through their long baleen plates.
The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog
Studying an endangered marine mammal presents many unique challenges. First, get out to sea on a boat or plane to find them; second, get photographs and associated behavioral data; and last, but most importantly, figure out who is who and what they are up to. To ensure that this hard work of data collection is used effectively, our researchers, in collaboration with an extensive network of research organizations along the eastern seaboard, curate the North Atlantic Right Whale Photo-identification Catalog. Identifiable by natural markings on top of their heads called callosities, as well as other identifying marks including scars, the Catalog represents the cornerstone of our work on this endangered species and is considered an invaluable data source by other researchers, federal and state agencies, industries and others who want to understand where right whales are found and how they are faring. The Catalog is also linked with human impact studies, visual health assessments, genetic analyses, fecal hormone studies, respiration studies, and many other aspects of right whale research carried out by us and our colleagues.
Assessing and mitigating anthropogenic impacts
Anthropogenic injuries, particularly vessel strikes and entanglements in fixed fishing gear, are the leading causes of mortality for North Atlantic right whales. For more than 30 years, we have been a leader in assessing and monitoring the impacts of these activities on the population and working to develop and implement mitigation strategies. Our innovative health and scar assessment techniques not only inform impacts of anthropogenic activities on right whales, but have served as model analytical tools for other large whale species as well.
Using a science-based approach to advance conservation efforts is the hallmark of our program. Our researchers—in collaboration with the shipping industry, scientists, and U.S. and Canadian government agencies—developed vessel speed restrictions and routing changes that have successfully reduced the risk of right whale mortalities by vessel strike where implemented. In recent years, entanglements in particular, have presented significant challenges to the recovery of this population.
We are monitoring entanglement rates in NARW’s on an annual basis. As alternative fishing approaches, including the use of reduced breaking strength ropes and ropeless technology are implemented more broadly, we will monitor for changes in entanglement rates and severity. Our team has been instrumental in developing the reduced breaking strength rope option and are working with ocean engineers to understand how this 1,700 lb breaking strength rope would work for whales as well as the fishing industry. We also coordinate activities of the Ropeless Consortium whose focus is to share information on ropeless testing activities.
For over 40 years we have been conducting vessel and aerial surveys to monitor right whales throughout their range. Our research team has been instrumental in discovering and documenting their habitats. In 1980, we initiated vessel surveys in the Bay of Fundy after a small number of right whales were found there during an aerial survey for marine mammals. These annual surveys continue to this day. In 1985, with the help of volunteer pilots, we discovered the calving ground in the southeast U.S. and helped develop a monitoring strategy that is now conducted by the states of Georgia and Florida. Since 2011, we have been conducting aerial surveys in the offshore waters south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, a site currently identified for offshore wind energy development. The purpose of the surveys is to examine the distribution and abundance of marine mammals with a focus on right whales and other mega fauna, prior to the construction and development of the wind farm. We have also conducted field work on Roseway Basin, south of Nova Scotia, in Cape Cod Bay, MA, on the Cape Farewell Grounds- a historic whaling ground south of Iceland, and recently have expanded our efforts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence as right whales have shifted their distribution to that area. In addition to our survey work, we use analytical tools including geographic information systems (GIS) and habitat modeling to improve our understanding of past and present right whale distributions, and to understand how climate-induced changes in the ocean may affect right whale habitats in the future.
- Leads: Jessica Redfern
- Team: Laura Ganley, Marianna Hagbloom, Philip Hamilton, Kelsey Howe, Amy Knowlton, Marilyn Marx, Katherine McKenna, Orla O’Brien, Dan Pendleton, Heather Pettis, Amy Warren, Monica Zani
- Program: Marine Mammal Conservation
North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium
Educating the public and those who rely on oceans and their resources is paramount to our efforts to conserve North Atlantic right whales. The New England Aquarium is a founding member of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, an internationally recognized model for single-species consortia. Comprised of more than 100 government and nongovernmental organizations, institutions, and individuals, the Consortium oversees access to multiple right whale research databases and employs a level of data sharing that is unique to such a large research community. The Consortium provides an opportunity for members to share current research findings and management efforts, and to stay apprised of current issues facing right whales. An annual “report card” is made available to the general public through the Consortium’s website.
Right whale sponsorship program
The Right Whale Sponsorship Program began in 1994 and over the decades has provided an opportunity for the public to gain a more in-depth understanding of right whales and our research efforts through a variety of fun and interesting materials, including a newsletter, Right Whale Research News. The funds raised from sponsorships support our mission to conserve this critically endangered whale by decreasing the threat of entanglement, reducing the risk of ship strikes, and increasing our knowledge about how and where right whales live.
Digital Image Gathering and Information Tracking System (DIGITS)
In the mid 1970s, researchers discovered that, in several species, individual whales could be distinguished from each other by natural markings. Since that time, photo-identification of whales and dolphins has become the cornerstone of modern whale research. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, our researchers partnered with Parallax Consulting LLC to develop and launch a state-of-the-art software package called DIGITS. DIGITS has revolutionized the processing of all aspects of digital photo-identification data and is vital to the North Atlantic Right Whale Identification Catalog.
Monitoring North Atlantic right whale health and stress to assess threats from human activities
North Atlantic right whales are called “urban whales” because they are exposed to numerous threats from human activities along their coastal range from Florida to Canada. Anthropogenic mortalities, low reproductive rates and declining health are impeding recovery of this highly endangered species. Our research program develops innovative approaches to evaluate health and understand the impacts of human activities on right whales. Our visual health assessment method (using photographs of each whale) enables us to follow the trends in health of individual whales and across the population over decades, and evaluate the health impacts in response to stressors in their environment. Our program has accumulated two decades of physiological data on living right whales–including a panel of reproductive, metabolic and stress hormone assays–that provides a window into reproduction, health and levels of stress experienced by whales in response to different factors.
Measuring hormones in whale "blow" to study physiological responses to human activities in near real-time
A major challenge for studying large whales is that sample types conventionally used for health analyses are logistically challenging to collect from free-swimming cetaceans. But whales breathe at the surface with huge tidal volume, and the exhaled clouds of respiratory vapor or “blow”” contain measurable hormone biomarkers. Our scientists have pioneered a novel technique for collecting and measuring reproductive and stress hormones in the blow of North Atlantic right whales. The long-term records of the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog and sightings database have provided detailed life history information to validate this method. This tool may allow us to measure in near real-time, whale responses to a variety of human activities, and to determine those that are most detrimental.
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 over 300 individuals and organizations, the Right Whale ID Catalog is the cornerstone of right whale research.
North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium
As a founding member of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, we collaborate with researchers, educators, and wildlife managers on activities that will lead to the survival of right whales and public awareness of their conservation challenges.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
You have questions. We have answers. Our scientists answer some of the most frequently asked questions about North Atlantic right whales.