North Atlantic right whale
The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) which means "good, or true, whale of the ice") is a baleen whale, one of three right whale species belonging to the genus Eubalaena, formerly classified as a single species. With only 400 in existence, North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world. They are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear are the two greatest threats to their recovery.
About four hundred right whales live in the North Atlantic Ocean. They migrate between feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and their winter calving areas off Georgia and Florida, an ocean area with heavy shipping traffic.
Like other right whales, the North Atlantic right whale is readily distinguished from other whales by the callosities on its head, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. The body of the whale is very dark grey or black, occasionally with white patches on the belly. The right whale's callosities appear white due to large colonies of cyamids or whale lice.
Adult right whales average 45–55 feet (14–17 m) in length and weigh up to seventy tons (63,500 kg); the largest measured specimens have been 60 feet (18 m) long and 117 tonnes (115 LT; 129 ST). Females are larger than males.
Forty percent of a right whale's body weight is blubber, which is of relatively low density. Consequently, unlike many other species of whale, dead right whales float.
There is little data on their life span, but it is believed to be at least fifty years, and some may live more than a century.
They first give birth at age nine or ten after a year-long gestation; the interval between births seems to have increased in recent years and now averages three to six years. Calves are 13–15 feet (4.0–4.6 m) long at birth and weigh approximately 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg).
Right whales feed mainly on copepods and other small invertebrates such as krill, pteropods, and larval barnacles, generally by slowly skimming through patches of concentrated prey at or below the ocean surface.
Right whales were so-named because whalers thought they were the "right" whale to hunt. Combined with the right whale's lack of speed through water, feeding habits, and coastal habitat, they were easy to catch, even for whalers equipped only with wooden boats and hand-held harpoons.
Basques were the first to commercially hunt this species. They began whaling in the Bay of Biscay as early as the eleventh century. The whales were hunted initially for their oil but, as meat preservation technology improved, their value as food increased. Basque whalers reached eastern Canada by 1530 and the shores of Todos os Santos Bay (in Bahia, Brazil) by 1602. The last Basque whaling voyages were made prior to the commencement of the Seven Year's War (1756–1763). A few attempts were made to revive the trade, but they failed. Shore whaling continued sporadically into the 19th century.
Setting out from Nantucket and New Bedford in Massachusetts and from Long Island, New York, Americans took up to one hundred right whales each year. By 1750, the North Atlantic right whale population was, for commercial purposes, depleted. Yankee whalers moved into the South Atlantic before the end of the 18th century. The population was so low by the mid-19th century that the famous Scottish whaler Scoresby claimed to have never seen a right whale.
As it became clear that hunting right whales was unsustainable, the world banned it in 1937. The ban was largely successful, although violations continued for several decades. Madeira took its last two right whales in 1968.
The greatest danger to the North Atlantic right whale is injury sustained from ship strikes. Between 1970–1999, 35.5% of recorded deaths were attributed to collisions. During 1999–2003, incidents of mortality and serious injury attributed to ship strikes averaged 1 per year. In 2004–2006, that number increased to 2.6. Deaths from collisions has become an extinction threat.
In 2007, and again on June 1, 2009, the US government changed shipping routes out of Boston in an attempt to reduce collision. NOAA estimates that implementing an "Area To Be Avoided" (ATBA) and narrowing the "Traffic Separation Scheme" (TSS) by 1 nautical mile (1.9 km) will reduce the relative risk of right whale ship strikes by 74% during April–July (63% from the ATBA and 11% from the narrowing of the TSS).
Population and distribution
About four hundred North Atlantic right whales exist, almost all living in the western North Atlantic Ocean. In spring, summer and autumn, they feed in a range stretching from New York to Nova Scotia. Particularly popular feeding areas are the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of Maine and Cape Cod Bay. In winter, they head south towards Georgia and Florida to give birth.
There have been a few sightings further east over the past few decades, with several sightings close to Iceland in 2003. There was speculation that these could be the remains of a virtually extinct Eastern Atlantic stock, but examination of old whalers' records suggest that they are more likely to be strays from further west. A few are sighted regularly in waters adjacent to Norway, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands.
In January 2009, one animal was sighted off Pico Island, Azores, the first confirmed appearance there since 1888. It was later revealed that this animal, which was named as "Pico", is a female from the western Atlantic group. Right whales have rarely been observed in the Mediterranean Sea, near Italy and Portugal. The Norway sightings appear to be of strays from the western Atlantic stock. In 2009, right whales appeared in waters around Greenland although their origin was not confirmed. Prior to this, no right whales had been killed or confirmed present off the coast of Greenland for around two hundred years.
In early 2009, scientists recorded a record number of births among the western North Atlantic population. 39 new calves were recorded, born off the Atlantic coast of Florida and Georgia.
- "Right whales, for the first time in a long time, are doing their part: they're having the babies; they're having record numbers of babies," said Monica Zani, an assistant scientist at the New England Aquarium who works with right whales. "We need to be vigilant and still do our part to prevent the whales from being killed."
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