Current Issue – Are the North Atlantic Right Whales alRight?

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Five new North Atlantic right whale calves spotted so far this year after no calves were born in 2018.

Mother 1204 with newborn calf off coast of Florida. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Did you know the right whale got its name because fishers thought it was the right whale to hunt? As a result, the North Atlantic right whales ended up being hunted to near extinction between the 11thand 18thcenturies (Cooke, 2018). After this population crash, the North Atlantic right whales were protected starting in the 1930s; however, their populations are still at risk, and classified as endangered under the IUCN Red List, as they are especially vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement (Cooke, 2018). If we aren’t careful, and the recent population declines continue, the North Atlantic right whales will likely be re-classified as critically endangered (Cooke, 2018).

Illustration depicting whalers attacking a whale with harpoons. Illustration copyright National Geographic Society.

Over the last couple of years, the situation has looked dire for the North Atlantic right whales. In 2017, 17 individuals were killed by boat strikes alone and in 2018 three individuals were killed due to entanglement (Pettis et al., 2019). In 2018, scientists didn’t observe any new calves in the population, continuing the trend of decreased reproduction. Between 2010 and 2016, the reproductive rate of the right whales declined by 40%, causing additional cause for concern about the species (Pettis et al., 2019). The population estimate of the North Atlantic right whales was down to 411 individuals in 2017 (Pettis et al., 2019), of which slightly over half are mature (Cooke, 2018) and approximately 90-100 of those individuals are female (Weintraub, 2019).

A female North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear. This individual ended up not surviving after expending too much energy dragging the fishing gear. Photo courtesy of NOAA/NEFSC/PETER DULEY.

While the North Atlantic right whale population is not looking great, there is some news that is giving scientists a little bit of hope. The North Atlantic right whales are currently in the midst of their calving season, which occurs until the end of March (Weintraub, 2019) and takes place off the coast of Georgia and Florida on the east coast of the United States (Cooke, 2018). Through the first half of this year’s calving season, five new calves have been sighted so far. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission posted news on their Facebook page on Friday, February 8 announcing a new calf sighting, bringing the total calf count of the current calving season to five (Simmons, 2019). While the five new calves are giving the North Atlantic right whale population some hope, scientists are hoping to see a total of 15 to 20 calves by the end of the 2019 calving season, which may be wishful thinking (Weintraub, 2019).

Right whale calf with mother off the coast of Florida. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The North Atlantic right whales are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (NOAA Fisheries, n.d.). Part of this includes a recovery and implementation plan, which aim to protect the whales from ship strikes, entanglement, monitor the populations, and provide care for entangled and stranded individuals (NOAA Fisheries, n.d.). In addition, their foraging habitat and calving habitat has been designated critical habitat to help the struggling populations (NOAA Fisheries, n.d.).



Cooke, J.G. 2018. Eubalaena glacialis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T41712A50380891. Downloaded on 11 February 2019.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. n.d. Species Directory: North Atlantic Right Whale, Conservation and Management. Electronic document: accessed 2019-02-11

Pettis, H. M., Pace, R. M. III, Hamilton, P. K. 2018. North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium 2018 Annual Report Card.

Simmons, R. 2019. There’s a whale baby boom off Florida’s east coast; 5th North Atlantic right whale calf spotted. Orlando Sentinel. Electronic document: accessed 2019-02-11

Weintraub, K. 2019. 3 Newborn Endangered Right Whales Seen After Year with No Births. New York Times. Electronic document: accessed 2019-02-11