Species in the Spotlight: North Atlantic Right Whale: NOAA
Untangling the North Atlantic Right Whale: World Wildlife Fund
Drone Footage of a North Atlantic Right Whale: HDR
Endangered Ocean: North Atlantic Right Whales: NOAA NOS
The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a federally-protected endangered species under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Less than 350 of these right whales exist today. Recovery has been slow for various reasons including a slow reproduction rate, and threats from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with vessels.
About the Right Whale Festival
The Right Whale Festival celebrates the annual return of endangered North Atlantic right whales to the warm coastal waters off northeast Florida and Georgia where they give birth to and nurse their young. Most of these mother calf pairs swim within a few miles of Amelia Island during the winter months. With less than 400 remaining, this family-fun event raises awareness of the threats to right whales and how we can help in their recovery. The festival highlights local efforts to protect these whales from extinction, as well as ocean-themed activities and exhibits that emphasize education and environmentally responsible adventures and products. The Right Whale Festival attracts 9,000+ visitors each year!
There exists one population of North Atlantic right whales along the eastern coast of North America. They spend the summer at their feeding and mating grounds off the coast of New England and Canada. During the winter, pregnant females travel south along the coast of northeast Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina where they give birth and raise their young.
The population consists of less than 400 individuals, only 90 of which are reproducing females. Both males and females reach sexual maturity about the age of 10. Females typically reproduce once every 6-10 years. During mating season, a female may mate with several different males. Gestation lasts 12 months with calving lasting anywhere from 7 months to a year and a half. Calves are born 13-15 feet in length and approximately 3,000 pounds in weight.
Right whales are baleen whales (Mysticeti) with 200-300 long baleen plates on both sides of their mouth. These plates are approximately 6.5 feet long and covered in tiny hairs. They are used to filter feed on copepods, a tiny crustacean. Right whales will occasionally eat krill, pteropods, and larval barnacles.
Right whales typically live alone or in small groups. Two or more whales interacting near the surface are referred to as a Surface Active Group, or a SAG. This is for social or mating purposes. During the summer months, a small group of whales may be found feeding in the same area. During mating season multiple males may travel with a single female while they are courting. During calving season, females typically travel alone with their calf.
North Atlantic right whales average 52 feet in length and 140,000 pounds in weight. They are black with occasional white patches on their stomachs. They have patches of rough white skin on their heads called callosities. These callosities get their white color from whale lice that eat the dead skin of the callosities. Each whale has a different arrangement of callosities which scientists use to identify individuals. The pectoral fins of right whales are relatively short and paddle-shaped. They lack a dorsal fin, and have two blowholes atop their heads which create a V-shaped blow. Right whales live for approximately 70 years though it is suspected they live much longer, up to 100 years or more.
Laws and Regulations
With less than 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining today, the North Atlantic right whale is a federally-protected endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is also listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List and Quebec’s Act Respecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species.
The Right Whale Early Warning System was created to alert commercial and military vessels about the presence of right whales. Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institution and other organizations work closely with NOAA Fisheries to do aerial surveys to locate the right whales in the northern portion of their calving grounds. Right whale sightings are provided to military and commercial vessels, harbor pilots, port authorities, and other representatives of the maritime industry. The effort is helping to reduce the number of accidental ship strikes.
Right whales received their name from commercial fishermen who called them the “right whale to kill”. This was due to the fact that they swim close to the shore at very slow speeds. Their thick blubber causes them to float to the surface when they die, and they have a high oil content which was very valuable back in the day.
Whaling was a popular way of life beginning in the 11th century with the Basque people. As the industry spread around the world, right whales became the preferred target of popular whaling sites along the North American eastern coast including Nantucket and Newfoundland. By the 1930s, the population of North Atlantic right whales was hunted to near extinction. Today, the species is still struggling to recover as it faces new anthropogenic threats.
The two major threats to the North Atlantic right whale are vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.
In the Northeast part of their journey, Right Whales can become entangled in commercial fishing lines that connect lobster and crab traps on the seafloor to buoys at the water surface. Once entangled in fishing gear, Whales may drown or drag and swim with attached gear for long distances. Dragging heavy ropes caught in their mouths or around their bodies ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injuries that are linked to reduced reproductive success and long protracted deaths.
When entangled whales are reported, specialized teams are sent out to try to assist them.
If a deceased whale is reported they are taken in for a necropsy to determine the cause of death. This provides data about the kind of threats these whales are facing, which in turn helps conservationists determine the best ways to save them.
Other threats to the North Atlantic right whale include climate change, ocean noise, and marine debris. Erratic changes in the climate causes erratic changes in zooplankton populations, the primary food source of right whales. Changes in the climate can also lengthen the already slow reproduction period of the whales. As ocean temperatures change, the whales may move into waters with increased risk of vessel strikes and entanglement. An increase in vessels also increases the amount of noise in the ocean. Not only does this interfere with communication between the whales, but it is a major stressor on them.
As the amount of plastic in the ocean increases exponentially, the threat of marine debris to the whales increases as well. Necropsies of whales have found alarming amounts of plastic in their stomachs. Plastic is especially dangerous when it degrades into small pieces called microplastics. These pose a particular threat to baleen whales that filter feed.
Seasonal Management Areas have been designated in which vessels must slow to 10 knots during the time of year when whales are passing through the area. A Dynamic Management Area can be temporarily designated if 3 or more whales are spotted within close proximity of one another. Word is spread to mariners and others to slow to 10 knots in those areas until deemed safe again. Slow speeds are also implemented when right whales are detected by acoustic signals.
The 500-yd rule designates a 500-yd safety zone around the whales. This means that anyone in the water must stay 500 yards away from the whales so as not to disturb them. A disturbed mother whale may abandon her calf which significantly decreases its chance of survival.
To reduce entanglements, fishermen are required to use gear modifications that are less harmful to whales. Some of these modifications include weak links to allow the whales to break loose if entangled and sinking lines as opposed to floating lines. Further research is being done on the production of ropeless gear. This is a new method that “allows fishermen to signal their gear to surface with fewer or even no vertical lines by using a transducer to acoustically trigger the release of a stowed rope and buoy—or a lift bag—from a trap or pot on the seafloor that brings the gear to the surface.” This practice helps to reduce marine life entanglement, especially right whales.
Right Whale Festival