After being hunted for centuries, today’s North Atlantic right whales face many challenges, including entanglements with fishing gear, ship strikes and climate change. This combination of threats, most of which are attributable to human activities, is jeopardizing the survival of this endangered species, which now numbers fewer than 350 individuals.
With their round, plump bodies, tendency to linger near the surface and lethargic nature, right whales represented the perfect target for whalers who successfully harvested them for centuries before driving the species to the brink of extinction. Also known as the northern right whale or black right whale, this species is found off the east coasts of the United States and Canada. In 2017, 18 right whale carcasses were discovered in the North Atlantic, sounding alarm bells across the scientific community. While the species historically frequented the Bay of Fundy, several individuals had ventured into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, resulting in an unusual uptick in the number of mortalities. In the years that followed, the number of births was not high enough to offset the number of deaths, which continued to accumulate.
Since then, a number of scientific studies have been conducted, initiatives to help the species have taken root, and regulations and special protection measures have been put into place. Given the steep challenges of coexisting with humans, the survival of this species hangs by a thread.
Throughout 2023, follow the latest right whale news on this page.
A prototype for a new type of fishing gear has been developed by the Merinov research centre and Université du Québec à Rimouski. With its dual breaking strength, it could help prevent entanglements of endangered North Atlantic right whales.
North Atlantic right whales are spending more time in Canadian waters, according to a new study. They are active in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between May and December.
Scientists at St Andrews University in the UK recently studied the cumulative effects of these stressors on the health and survival of this endangered whale. They concluded that its health was mainly influenced by entanglements and collisions, as well as variations in the abundance of prey in its environment.
Over the past several years, the novel field of ropeless fishing has been expanding thanks to the research and development of new concepts.
These new whale-safe devices offer hope both for the protection of individual animals and the recovery of their respective species. One species in particular that stands to benefit from these developments is the North Atlantic right whale, whose population numbers just 340 individuals.
A dead calf was discovered under a pier in North Carolina, according to a report published by NOAA. It had been seen a few days earlier swimming alone, but scientists had little option to intervene.
The right whale calving season is off to a good start, with nine calves having already been spotted. Scientists are optimistic, as each birth is a source of hope, but still suggest “not to get carried away too quickly.”
North Atlantic right whales are currently experiencing what is known as an “exceptional mortality event”. Indeed, the annual mortality rate recorded since 2017 is particularly high and represents a palpable danger for the survival of this fragile and vulnerable species. This is why births, deaths and accidents involving these whales are being closely monitored in Canadian and U.S. waters.
Summary of Entanglements and Serious Injuries
Number of North Atlantic right whale births per year
Links and resources
Further reading on the species:
North Atlantic right whale factsheet
Recognize individuals and discover their life stories:
North Atlantic right whale photo-identification catalogue
Surveillance and prevention in Canada:
Discover the right whale monitoring and surveillance activities in Canada being carried out by Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Understand the 2021 fishery management measures aimed at protecting right whales implemented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Discover the collision prevention measures implemented by Transport Canada
Summary of the exceptional mortality event (2017-2021 statistics) by NOAA Fisheries
View the details of the 2021 calving season compiled by NOAA Fisheries
North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) – NARWC Annual Report Card
2020 Annual Report by Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life
Reports and documentaries:
Entangled (2020) – A film by David Abel and Andy Laub
Deep Trouble (2017) – 6-episode podcast produced by CBC
New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Program (Facebook)
Center for Coastal Studies (Facebook)