Northern right whales tend to move through the ocean at a fairly slow pace for an animal of their size, they feed near the surface, and they float when killed; thus they were considered the "right" catch for whalers. Hunting of right whales began as early as the 10th century. These whales were hunted extensively during the 19th century, with as many as 100,000 whales slaughtered during this time. Right whales were driven close to extinction early in the 20th century and were one of the first whales to be given international protection in 1935. At the first international Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1935, a total ban on hunting right whales was established. The protection of this species was broadened in 1972 with the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A major issue revolving around the conservation of the right whale is habitat modification. Especially since they use shallow coastal lagoons and bays for breeding. Their numbers are stable and may even be increasing slightly in the Northwest Atlantic and off South Africa. The most current population estimate of 295 whales may represent the approximate carrying capacity. The carrying capacity could be increased though if collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear was decreased. It may be decades before the health of the right whale population is recovered. A recovery plan has been established with the difficult duty of managing a species that is hard to track. Luckily, activity modifications are taking place by people like the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, ship traffic controllers in major shipping lanes, and others. Funding is always a major obstacle but support is being seen by individual institutions, states, and relevant sectors of the federal government (Cummings 1985, Katona 1999).
Northern Atlantic right whales are the most critically endangered great whale, with fewer than 300 individuals estimated. Populations of this species don't show significant signs of increasing in number, despite a ban on hunting. At the current population numbers species extinction is expected in 190 years.
Current threats to right whales include collisions with boats, since they tend to rest and feed at the surface frequently, pollution, becoming entangled in fish nets, and sonic pollution and disruption caused by military practices.
The history of research and conservation of northern right whales provides a number of lessons that may be applicable to other endangered species. First, sufficient funding must be provided to carry out an effective management program. Second, persistence and patience is needed to develop and implement a slow moving research program. Third, studies may not meet traditional scientific standards of proof because sample sizes are so small. Fourth, effective conservation will require cooperation from federal and state agencies as well as nongovernmental groups. Fifth, incidental take of a species is much harder to regulate than directed take like hunting. Lastly, we should never become complacent about the state of our knowledge (Katona 1999).
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered