North Pacific right whales are currently one of the rarest whale species, with some estimates placing the world population at around 1400 individuals and other estimates substantially smaller (~500 in the western Pacific and numbering less than 100 in the eastern Pacific). They were previously common in the north Pacific but were relentlessly pursued by whalers throughout the 19th century. Japanese whaling of this species began in the late 1500's and whaling by Americans and Europeans began in the 1800's. As many as 37,000 north Pacific right whales were killed in a 70 year period from 1839 to 1909, leaving populations at a fraction of their previous levels. Right whales became protected by international agreement in 1935 and by law in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission. Illegal hunting continued through the 1960's, during which time Soviet whaling ships took almost the entire remaining population of eastern Pacific right whales (372 individuals), leaving the population at an estimated 50 individuals. The eastern Pacific population is considered critically endangered and populations in the western Pacific are considered endangered by the IUCN. These whales have been protected from hunting since 1970, but entanglements and deaths continue to occur occasionally. Only 1,965 north Pacific right whales were observed in the 20th century.
Appointed in 1987, The Northern Right Whale Recovery Team created a recovery plan for both north Pacific and north Atlantic right whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service approved the recovery plan in 1991, which strives to see both species fully recover but first focuses on recovery to bring their status from “endangered” to merely “threatened”. Some actions recommended in the recovery plan include eliminating injury caused by ship collision, fisheries, and fishing gear; monitoring population size and trends; maximizing efforts to free entangled or stranded right whales; obtaining scientific information from dead specimens; and protecting habitats that are essential for right whales to survive.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: critically endangered
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