North Atlantic right whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

North Atlantic right whale

Eubalaena glacialis

Also known as

Black whales

Distribution

Warm temperate to subpolar latitudes of the north Atlantic Ocean

Ecosystem/Habitat

Coastal to open ocean

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Endangered

Taxonomy

Order Cetacea (whales, dolphins and porpoises), Family Balaenidae (right whales)

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North Atlantic right whales are baleen whales, meaning they filter their food through bristles made of keratin in their mouths. They’re seasonal feeders, spending their summers feeding on copepods in the northern part of their range. When winter arrives, they travel between Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence down the eastern United States to Florida, using coastal and nearshore waters as their primary migration and seasonal feeding routes. Once abundant throughout the Atlantic Ocean, they are now endangered. 

North Atlantic right whales were devastated by whaling in the 19th century. It’s likely that they were named “right whale” because they were the “right” ones to hunt – slow-moving, surface-dwelling animals that migrate close to the coast and float when they are killed. In the 1990s, North Atlantic right whales hit a population low of 270 animals. Since then, they’ve started making a fragile recovery but their numbers have started to drop again. 2017 was a crisis year for right whales with 17 confirmed mortalities – 12 in Canadian waters – and no new calves in the 2017/2018 winter birthing season. There are now  approximately 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining.

There are three separate species of right whales; North Atlantic right whales, North Pacific right whales and Southern right whales. North Atlantic right whales are mostly black in colour, but sometimes have white markings on their faces and undersides. They have thick grey or white patches, called callosities, scattered across their bodies which are created by whale lice, barnacles and parasitic worms. The patterns these callosities form are unique to each whale, allowing scientists to distinguish individuals. 

Right whales are one of the largest species on Earth and have massive heads that measure almost one-third of their total length. They grow to around 15 metres in length and weigh up to 70 tonnes, with females growing slightly larger than males. They have large, round bodies with large square flippers and no dorsal fin.

Historically, North Atlantic right whales have lived until they are at least 70 years old and gave birth every three to four years. Due to all the threats they’re facing, now scientists estimate a female whale’s life expectancy is only 27 to 28 years and she will only give birth every eight years. Right whale calves nurse for the first one to two years of their lives but remain close to their mothers until they reach sexual maturity at around age 10.

They usually give birth in the southern United States, off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, in the winter months and then travel north to feed in waters off the Maritimes, Quebec, Maine and Massachusetts during the summer. That being said, in any given summer, almost half of known right whales are not spotted in the northern part of their range and essentially disappear – no one knows where they go.

In the 1800s, right whales were targeted by whalers and hunted to the brink of extinction. In 1935, right whales gained international protection, effectively ending all direct efforts to hunt these whales. Even though there is no longer an industry for right whales, fishing remains one of the greatest threats they face. In 2017, 17 right whales died in Canadian and American waters. These deaths were largely attributed to entanglements with fishing gear and ship strikes. 

North Atlantic right whales are particularly susceptible to entanglement with fishing gear and ship strikes because they are dark in colour and feed close to the surface in coastal waters where boat traffic is high. Evidence from scarring has shown that almost 90 per cent of right whales have had encounters with fishing gear. 

The Canadian government has implemented a series of measures designed to reduce entanglement with fishing gear and ship strikes. Mandatory measures were announced in March of 2018 that included permanent (known as static) fisheries closures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Roseway Basin and the Grand Manan Basin, as well as “dynamic” closures that we implemented every time a single right whale was seen in the area. This affected several fisheries including snow crab, lobster, Greenland halibut (fixed gear), cod (fixed gear), herring (gill nets) and many more.

North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered whales on the planet. Their population was decimated by whaling in the 19th century and now they face a myriad of threats including entanglements in fishing gear, ship strikes, ocean noise and pollution. After the death of 17 whales in 2017 compounded with no new births in the 2017/2018 breeding season, their population was estimated to be about 400 individuals. This number is exacerbated by the fact that there are only 100 females remaining in the population. If these population trends continue, North Atlantic right whales could be extinct within 30 years.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed North Atlantic right whales as Endangered in 1980. They were added to the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2005 and their current status under SARA is Schedule 1, Endangered. In Canada, they are also protected by Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2018). North Atlantic Right Whale. Retrieved from http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/profiles-profils/rightwhaleNA-baleinenoireAN-eng.html  

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2011). Species Profile: North Atlantic Right Whale. Retrieved from https://wildlife-species.canada.ca/species-risk-registry/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=780 

Oceana. (n.d.). North Atlantic Right Whale. Retrieved from https://oceana.org/marine-life/marine-mammals/north-atlantic-right-whale 

IUCN. (2018). Eubalaena glacialis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved from https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/41712/50380891 

NOAA. (n.d.). North Atlantic Right Whale. Retrieved from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale 

NOAA. (2018). 2017-2018 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event. Retrieved from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/2017-2018-north-atlantic-right-whale-unusual-mortality-event