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North Atlantic (Northern) Right whale (Eubalaena glacialis)

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Right whales are large baleen whales. Females are larger than males. Distinguishing features include a stocky body, black coloration (although some have white patches on their bellies), no dorsal fin, a large head (about 1/4 of the body length), strongly bowed lower lip, and callosities (raised patches of roughened skin) on their head. Callosities appear white because “whale lice” cling to the roughened patches of skin. Two rows of long–up to 8 feet (2.4 m)–dark baleen plates hang from their upper jaw, with about 225 plates on each side. Their tail is broad, deeply notched, and all black with a smooth trailing edge.

Females give birth to their first calf at about 10 years old. Gestation lasts approximately 1 year. Calves are usually weaned toward the end of their first year. In the coastal waters off Georgia and northern Florida, calving occurs from December through March. (All vessels 65 feet (19.8 m) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in this area during this calving season to reduce the threat of ship collisions.)

It is believed that right whales live at least 50 years, but there are few data on the longevity of right whales. Using cross-sections of teeth is one way to age mammals, but, right whales have no teeth–only baleen. However, ear bones and, in some cases, eye lenses can be used to estimate age in right whales after they have died. There are indications that closely related species may live over 100 years.

Right whales generally feed from spring to fall, though, in certain areas, they may also feed in winter. Their primary food sources are zooplankton, including copepods, euphausiids, and cyprids. Unlike many other baleen whales, right whales feed by opening their mouths and swimming through large patches of zooplankton. Their baleen filters out tiny prey but allows water to flow through. Right whales feed at or just below the water’s surface and at depth –sometimes close to the ocean bottom.

This species is classified as ENDANGERED by the IUCN's Red List.
This species is classified as ENDANGERED by the IUCN’s Red List.

Status

ESA Endangered – throughout its range
MMPA Depleted – throughout its range
CITES Appendix I – throughout its range

Species Description

Weight:
up to 79 tons (158,000 lbs; 71,700 kg)
Length:
about 50 feet (15 m);
calves are about 14 feet (4.2 m) at birth
Appearance:
stocky black body, with no dorsal fin, and callosities (raised patches of rough skin) on the head region that apear white because of the cyamids(whale lice).
Lifespan:
at least 70 years, but there are few data on the longevity of right whales. There are indications that closely related species may live over 100 years.
Diet:
zooplankton, including copepods, euphausiids, and cyprids
Behavior:
Unlike many other baleen whales, right whales feed by opening their mouths and swimming through large patches of zooplankton. Their baleen filters out tiny prey but allows water to flow through.

Habitat

Most known right whale nursery areas are in shallow, coastal waters.

Right whales have occurred historically in all the world’s oceans from temperate to subpolar latitudes. They primarily occur in coastal or shelf waters, although movements over deep waters are known. Right whales migrate to higher latitudes during spring and summer.

Critical Habitat

We designated critical habitat for Eubalaena glacialis in 1994 (59 FR 28805), and in January 2016, we expanded the critical habitat areas (81 FR 4838). There are two critical habitat areas in the North Atlantic:

Distribution

North Atlantic right whales inhabit the Atlantic Ocean, particularly between 20° and 60° latitude.

For much of the year, their distribution is strongly correlated to the distribution of their prey. During winter, right whales occur in lower latitudes and coastal waters where calving takes place. However, the whereabouts of much of the population during winter remains unknown.

The majority of the western North Atlantic population range from wintering and calving areas in coastal waters off the southeastern United States to summer feeding and nursery grounds in New England waters and north to the Bay of Fundy and Scotian Shelf. We identified seven “areas of high use” that are key habitat areas for right whales:

  • Southeastern United States
  • Great South Channel
  • Jordan Basin
  • Georges Basin along the northeastern edge of Georges Bank
  • Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay
  • Bay of Fundy
  • Roseway Basin on the Scotian Shelf

The eastern North Atlantic population may originally have migrated along the coast from northern Europe to the northwest coast of Africa. Historic records suggest that animals were heavily exploited by whalers from the Bay of Biscay off southern Europe and Cintra Bay off the northwestern coast of Africa, as well as off coastal Iceland and the British Isles. During the early to mid 1900s, right whales were intensely harvested in the Shetlands, Hebrides, and Ireland. Recent surveys suggest right whales no longer frequent Cintra Bay or northern European waters. Due to a lack of sightings, current distribution and migration patterns of the eastern North Atlantic right whale population are unknown.

RELATIVE SPECIES: Bowhead whales are most similar in appearance but not in range.

OTHER NAMES: North Atlantic Right Whale, Black Right Whale, Biscayan Right Whales, Nordkapers

NEIGHBORING SPECIES: Gray, Humpback, Minke, Sei, Fin, Blue Whale.

PREDATORS: Humans, sharks, killer whales

THREATS: Commercial whaling depleted much of the population, ship strikes (very slow swimmers), fishing nets, noise disturbance and calves being separated from mothers due to shipping traffic.

DIET: Only plankton such as copepods, occasionally krill.

MANNER OF FEEDING: Skim feeding, Swimming through the water with their mouths open.

BEHAVIOR: Travel alone or in small unstable groups. Breachng and lobtailing is very common. Curious and will approach ships. Occasionally form groups where they display courtship behavior by vigorously rubbing against each other, even when it is not breeding season. Make 5-6 short dives then stay submerged for up to 20 mins. Mothers will roll over so they can grab their calves with their flippers.

REPRODUCTION: Females give birth every 3-5 years. Gestation is 12 months. Calves are weaned at 6-12 months. Males are very competitive because they have the largest testes (1 ton) in the animal kingdom. Females will mate with more than one male at a time.

LIFE SPAN: 70+ years

Population Trends

In 2011, the western North Atlantic population numbered at least 465 individual right whales. Recent analysis of sightings data suggests a slight growth in population size, however, North Atlantic right whales remain critically endangered and with such a small population, the population trend could change quickly. Read the latest stock assessment report for more information on the right whale population in the western North Atlantic.

Although precise estimates of abundance are not available for the eastern North Atlantic right whales, the population is nearly extinct, probably only numbering in the low tens of animals. It is unclear whether right whales found in the eastern North Atlantic represent a “relict” population or whether all or some of these whales are individuals from the known western North Atlantic population.

Threats

They also face natural threats from predators, such as large sharks and killer whales, which may affect the population.

Conservation Efforts

Right whales were first protected by the 1931 Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which took effect in 1935. However, neither Japan nor the Soviet Union signed this agreement, so they were theoretically free to kill right whales.

In 1949, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling  protected right whales from commercial whaling.

In U.S. waters, right whales were determined to be in danger of extinction in all or a significant portion of their range due to commercial over-utilization. As a result, they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in June 1970, the precursor to the ESA. The species was subsequently listed as endangered under the ESA in 1973 and, thus, designated as “depleted” under theMarine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

We have taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of ship collisions, including:

  • Mandatory vessel speed restrictions in Seasonal Management Areas
  • Voluntary speed reductions in Dynamic Management Areas
  • Recommended shipping routes and in an Area To Be Avoided
  • Modification of international shipping lanes
  • Aircraft surveys and right whale alerts
  • Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems
  • Outreach and Education
  • Stranding response

To address entanglement in fishing gear, we established the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. This team developed a plan to reduce the incidental serious injury and mortality of right whales, as well as humpback, fin, and minke whales in the South Atlantic shark gillnet fishery, the Gulf of Maine and Mid-Atlantic lobster trap/pot fishery, the Mid-Atlantic gillnet fishery, and the Gulf of Maine sink gillnet fishery.

Federal law [pdf] and Massachusetts state law This link is an external site. prohibit approaching a right whale closer than 500 yards unless permitted by NOAA or unless one of the limited exemptions applies.

Recovery Plan
Northern Right Whale Recovery Plan (1991):
The Northern Right Whale Recovery Team was appointed in July 1987. A Draft Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (including both the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales) was distributed for public comment in February 1990. Comments were received from Federal, state and local governments, conservation organizations, and private individuals. Appropriate comments were incorporated into the plan.

In December 1991, we approved the Final Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (including both the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales). It identified known and potential factors affecting the right whale and recommended actions to reduce or eliminate impacts to the species.

We published a revised recovery plan [pdf] in 2005 for right whales in the North Atlantic.

The ultimate goal of the plan is to recover the species, with an interim goal of down-listing their status from “endangered” to “threatened.”

The major actions recommended in the plan are:

  • Reduce or eliminate injury or mortality caused by ship collision
  • Reduce or eliminate injury and mortality caused 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

Regulatory Overview

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has been listed as endangered under theEndangered Species Act (ESA) since 1970. (It was originally listed as the “northern right whale” under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the precursor to the ESA, in June 1970). They are also designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

We designated critical habitat for the Eubalaena glacialis in 1994(59 FR 28805) and revised critical habitat in 2016(81 FR 4838).

We established regulations restricting approaches within 500 yards (460 m) of a right whale, whether by vessel, aircraft or other means, to reduce disturbance and the potential for vessel interaction (62 FR 6729).

We established regulations to reduce the likelihood of deaths and serious injuries from ship collisions to endangered North Atlantic right whales. All vessels 65 ft (19.8 m) or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in certain locations along the east coast of the U.S. at certain times of year.

In 2008, we listed the endangered “northern right whale” (Eubalaena spp.) as two separate, endangered species: the North Pacific right whale (E. japonica) and North Atlantic right whale (E. glacialis) (73 FR 12024).

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenidae
GenusEubalaena
Speciesglacialis

References:

Cool/Gross/Weird:

  • NOAA extends rule reducing risk of whale ship strikes along U.S. East Coast
  • Right whales are the rarest of all large whale species and among the rarest of all marine mammal species.
  • There are only about 450 right whales in the North Atlantic.
  • Right whales have a thick layer of blubber, so they float when dead, making them the “right” species for early whalers.
  • Their heads are covered in white rough patches called callosities, they grow in the same places that male facial hair would grow.
  • They are the most hunted whale by commercial whalers because they are large, slow and contain a lot of oil.  They were the “right” whale to hunt. There are 3 subspecies that are genetically evolving into separate species. They are critically endangered at only 300-350 left.

-TSF-

 

 

 

 

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