Saving the North Atlantic Right Whale - North America
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North Atlantic right whales are social animals that typically live in small groups called pods. These pods vary in size, from just a few individuals up to a dozen or more. They are known for their acrobatic behavior, such as breaching, tail slapping, and flipper waving, which they may use for communication, courtship, or play.
North Atlantic right whales also have a distinctive appearance, with a trademark V-shaped blowhole and distinctive white patches on their heads called "callosities” (patches of roughened skin that contain large numbers of small crustaceans). They are large baleen whales, with adults reaching lengths of up to 49 feet (15 meters) and weights of up to 154,000 pounds (70,000 kilograms).
North Atlantic right whales help to maintain healthy and diverse ecosystems. As they migrate, they fertilize the ecosystems they move through and help to support the marine life inhabiting them.
They’re also symbiotic with the ocean. While they consume large amounts of plankton, their waste products provide nutrients that support the growth of that same plankton. This process is particularly important as phytoplankton captures about 40% of all carbon dioxide produced and generates over 50% of the atmosphere’s oxygen.
One of the most endangered large whales, the North Atlantic right whale is a fascinating species we need to work hard to protect. So, to get to know these wonderful creatures a little better, here are some key North Atlantic right whale facts.
The scientific name for the North Atlantic right whale is Eubalaena glacialis, which translates from Latin as “true whale of the ice.”
Sadly, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered animals in the world. It was added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2020 and is currently listed as “critically endangered”.
Historically considered the “right whales to hunt” due to their slowness and thick blubber layer, right whale populations declined drastically from whaling in the 19th century. By the late 1800s, the North Atlantic right whale was nearly hunted to extinction.
In 1935, the League of Nations (governing body before United Nations) banned the hunting of right whales with hopes of giving them a chance to recover, but populations have remained low due to other human-related threats, including accidental entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships, as well as habitat degradation caused by climate change.
Read more about the North Atlantic right whale's fight for survival.
According to recent estimates, there are approximately 350 of these animals left. Even more concerningly, there are just around 70 female North Atlantic right whales capable of reproduction left, according to another report. This means that the death of even one animal can have a critical impact on the species’ survival. The good news: with prompt action and new technology, we can save the North Atlantic right whale.
North Atlantic right whales prefer to live near the coastline. They typically inhabit deeper waters while foraging for food and mating, choosing areas that provide an abundance of their food sources, including zooplankton, copepods, and krill.
They then move to more shallow areas for breeding and calving, as the warm waters and shallow depths provide a safe and nurturing environment for their young.
The North Atlantic right whale travels along North America’s East Coast. During the summer, the whales migrate north to feed in the cooler waters of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. During the winter, they migrate south to warmer waters around the Florida area to mate and give birth.
North Atlantic right whales are filter feeders and primarily feed on zooplankton, as well as krill and other small crustaceans. They use their baleen plates (comb-like structures in their mouth) to filter the tiny organisms from the water.
Adult North Atlantic right whales can consume up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) of food per day. Due to their specialized feeding habits, North Atlantic right whales are particularly vulnerable to changes in the availability and distribution of their prey. Sadly, this is heavily impacted by environmental factors, such as climate change and human activities.
Today, North Atlantic right whales face a sea of danger as they migrate along one of the most industrialized areas of the ocean: the East Coast of Canada and the United States. The biggest threats against their survival are vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and climate change..
Entanglement is one of the greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales. Weighed down by hundreds of pounds of fishing gear, entangled right whales are unable to move freely through the water, feed, or reproduce. Over time, they die a slow death from starvation or injury. As they try to break free, the fishing gear can also cut into their bodies, causing serious injuries and even death. If they do break away, they will likely be left feeling stressed, tired, and weakened.
As they migrate along the busy Atlantic coastline, North Atlantic right whales overlap with shipping lanes. Add their huge size and low agility into the mix and they become vulnerable to vessel strikes. These collisions lead to cuts, broken bones, internal injuries, and even death.
Climate change has led to an increase in water temperatures, as well as changing winds and ocean currents. The plants and animals the North Atlantic right whale eats are likely to move and decrease in abundance over the coming years, making it harder for the whales to survive. Because female North Atlantic right whales are traveling farther for food and navigating other threats, they're growing exhausted; this is considered one of the reasons their birth rates have been decreasing (from every 2-3 years to 6-8 years).
Noise pollution has made it difficult for whales to communicate, navigate and locate food. Human-generated noise can cause them to become disoriented, separated from their group, or even suffer from hearing loss, which can impact their ability to survive and reproduce.
North Atlantic right whales can live up to 70 years.
North Atlantic right whales can grow up to 49 feet in length (15 meters).
A North Atlantic right whale can weigh up to 154,000 pounds (70,000 kilograms).
North Atlantic right whales are known for their slow movement, typically travelling at a leisurely pace of 2.3 miles per hour (3.7 kilometers per hour) and reaching a maximum speed of 5.8 miles per hour (9.3 kilometers per hour).
Right whales were named by fisherman, as they were considered the “right whales to hunt.” They swim slowly close to shore and are so blubber-rich that they float when dead, making them easy to catch.
North Atlantic right whales face a large range of threats, including climate change, vessel strikes, entanglement, and ocean noise.
IFAW’s biologists, veterinarians, and policy experts are tackling the crisis from many angles by collaborating with other scientists, local fishermen, consumers, and policy makers in both Canada and the United States.
To solve a problem, you first must understand it. For right whales, this means investigating why their population has precipitously declined in the last decade. To help accomplish this, IFAW has one of the most experienced teams of biologists and veterinarians to perform detailed necropsies (animal autopsies) on right whales. In 2019, multi-agency research led by IFAW veterinarian Dr. Sarah Sharp revealed the shocking reality for right whales. Between 2003 and 2018, nearly 90% of all right whale deaths that could be definitively determined were caused by entanglement and vessel-induced trauma. What does this mean? Right whales are dying at the hands of humans and only we have the power to change this course.
Because every individual whale matters, all options must be explored to increase survival of the whales suffering from these threats. IFAW is leading the way by leading methods for large whale medical intervention at sea. This is the only project of its kind in the world that maintains the equipment and experienced personnel needed to give these whales the chance to survive. Combining veterinary expertise, large whale experience, and a custom-made darting system, IFAW can deliver medications such as antibiotics to fight infections caused by extensive injuries, or sedatives to calm entangled whales so they can be more safely and successfully disentangled.
But long-term solutions are needed...
Our team is one of the leading organizations to work directly with both fishermen and underwater technology companies to advance on-demand fishing gear. Eliminate vertical buoy rope from the water column and you reduce the threat of entanglement. In 2018, IFAW worked with the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association to test the functionality of on-demand acoustic release technology designed by Desert Star Systems during non-fishing conditions. IFAW then expanded its industry engagement by partnering with the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association for at-sea pilot testing during real-time fishing operations using another on-demand fishing gear system manufactured by Massachusetts-based EdgeTech Underwater Technologies. The key is to adopt sustainable solutions that allow fishermen to continue their livelihoods while also ensuring whales remain safe in the water.
In Washington DC, we’ve worked with members of Congress to introduce the North Atlantic Right Whale Coexistence Act, which established a new competitive grant program to support critical research and stakeholder collaboration on new initiatives to protect right whales. We also work with the U.S. and Canadian governments to implement and enforce speed restrictions for vessels, as well as advocating for rerouting of high-volume shipping lanes to protect right whales during migration season.
The actions we take today will determine the future for the North Atlantic right whale. It’s going to take all of us—government officials, fishermen, scientists, campaigners, and consumers like you—to save the North Atlantic right whale.
Wondering how you can help protect right whales? Join us today to protect North Atlantic right whales in their fight to survive the increasing threats of entanglement and vessel strikes.
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Deputy Vice President - Animal Rescue
Animal Rescue Veterinarian
Dr. Sarah Sharp
Stranding Coordinator - Marine Mammal Rescue & Research
Senior Marine Campaigns Manager
Senior Director - Outreach & Program Collaboration
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Director – Marine Mammal Rescue & Research