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, all of which were formerly classified as a single species. Because of their docile nature, their slow surface-skimming feeding behaviors, their tendencies to stay close to the coast, and their high blubber content (which makes them float when they are killed, and which produced high yields of whale oil), right whales were once a preferred target for whalers, who reportedly considered them the "right" whales to hunt.
At present, they are among the most endangered whales in the world, and they are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are about 400 individuals in existence in the western North Atlantic Ocean. In the eastern North Atlantic, on the other hand – with a total population reaching into the low teens at best – scientists believe that they may already be functionally extinct. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear are their two greatest threats to recovery, which together account for nearly half of all North Atlantic right whale mortality since 1970. 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, also known as the northern right whale or black 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 North Atlantic right whales average 13–16 m (43–52 ft) in length and weigh approximately 40,000 to 70,000 kg (44 to 77 short tons), they are slightly smaller on average than the North Pacific species. The largest measured specimens have been 18.2 m (60 ft) long and 106,000 kg (230,000 lb). 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[when?] 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 (1,400 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.
The cladogram is a tool for visualizing and comparing the evolutionary relationships between taxa. The point where a node branches off is analogous to an evolutionary branching – the diagram can be read left-to-right, much like a timeline. The following cladogram of the Balaenidae family serves to illustrate the current scientific consensus as to the relationships between the North Atlantic right whale and the other members of its family.
|The right whale family, Balaenidae|
Another so-called species of right whale, the "Swedenborg whale" as proposed by Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century, was by scientific consensus once thought to be the North Atlantic right whale. However, the 2013 results of DNA analysis of those fossil bones revealed that they were in fact those of the bowhead whale.
Right whales were so-named because whalers thought they were the "right" whale to hunt. As the "right" whale continued to float long after being killed, it was possible to 'flech' or strip the whale of blubber without having to take it onboard ship. 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 whale oil but, as meat preservation technology improved, their value as food increased. Basque whalers reached eastern Canada by 1530. The last Basque whaling voyages were made prior to the commencement of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). A few attempts were made to revive the trade, but they failed. Shore whaling continued sporadically into the 19th century. It had previously been assumed that Basque whaling in eastern Canada had been the primary cause for the depletion of the sub-population in the western North Atlantic, but later genetic studies disproved this.
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, with the records including one report of 29 whales killed in Cape Cod Bay in a single day during January 1700. 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 Whitby whaler Rev. William Scoresby, son of the successful British whaler William Scoresby senior (1760–1829), claimed to have never seen a right whale (although he mainly hunted bowhead whales off eastern Greenland, outside the normal range of right whales).
Based on back calculations using the present population size and growth rate, the population may have numbered fewer than 100 individuals by 1935. As it became clear that hunting right whales was unsustainable, international protection for right whales came into effect, as the practice was banned globally in 1937. The ban was largely successful, although violations continued for several decades. Madeira took its last two right whales in 1968.
For the period of 1970 to October 2006, humans have been responsible for 48% of the 73 documented mortalities of the North Atlantic right whale. A 2001 forecast showed a declining population trend in the late 1990s, and indicated a high probability that North Atlantic right whales would go extinct within 200 years if the then-existing anthropogenic mortality rate was not curtailed. The combined factors of small population size and low annual reproductive rate of right whales mean that a single death represents a significant increase in mortality rate. Conversely, significant reduction in mortality rate can be obtained by preventing just a few deaths. It was calculated that preventing the deaths of just two females per year would enable the population to stabilize. The data suggests, therefore, that human sources of mortality may have a greater effect relative to population growth rates of North Atlantic right whales than for other whales. The principal factors known to be retarding growth and recovery of the population are ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear.
The single greatest danger to this species is injury sustained from ship strikes. Between 1970 and October 2006, 37% of all recorded North Atlantic right whale deaths were attributed to collisions. During the years 1999–2003, incidents of mortality and serious injury attributed to ship strikes averaged 1 per year. For the years 2004–2006, that number increased to 2.6. Additionally, it is possible that the official figures actually underestimate the actual ship-strike mortality rates, since whales struck in offshore areas may never be sighted due to low search effort.
In 2002, the International Maritime Organization shifted the location of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS, i.e. shipping lanes) in the Bay of Fundy (and approaches) from an area with the highest density of North Atlantic right whales to an area of lower density. This was the first time the IMO had changed a TSS to help protect marine mammals. In 2006, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established a set of recommended vessel routes to reduce ship strikes in four important eastern-US right whale habitats. In 2007, and again on June 1, 2009, NOAA changed the TSS servicing Boston to reduce vessel collisions with right whales and other whale species. NOAA estimated that implementing an "Area To Be Avoided" (ATBA) and narrowing the TSS by 1 nautical mile (1.9 km) would 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).
Fishing gear entanglement
The next greatest source of human-induced mortality is entanglement in fixed fishing gear such as bottom-set groundfish gillnet gear, cod traps and lobster pots. Between 1970 and October 2006, there have been 8 instances where entanglements have been the direct cause of death of North Atlantic right whales. This represents 11% of all deaths documented during that period. From 1986 to 2005, there were a total of 61 confirmed reports of entanglements, including the aforementioned mortalities. It is likely that official figures underestimate the actual impacts of entanglement. It is believed that chronically entangled animals may in fact sink upon death, due to loss of buoyancy from depleted blubber reserves, and therefore escape detection.
Beyond direct mortality, it is believed that whales that survive entanglement episodes may suffer other negative effects that may weaken it, reduce fertility, or otherwise affect it so that it is more likely to become vulnerable to further injury. Because whales often free themselves of gear following an entanglement event, scarring may be a better indicator of fisheries interaction than entanglement records. Recent[when?] analysis of the scarification of right whales showed that over 75% of whales examined during 1980-2002 were scarred at least once by fishing gear. Further research has indicated that between 14% and 51% of right whales are involved in entanglement each year.
In 2007, so as to protect northern right whales from serious injury or mortality from entanglement in gillnet gear in their calving area in Atlantic Ocean waters off the southeast United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) revised regulations implementing the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP). This plan expands the restricted area to include the waters off of South Carolina, Georgia, and Northern Florida. It also prohibits gillnet fishing or even gillnet possession in those waters for a period of five months, beginning on November 15 of each year, which coincides with the annual right whale calving season.
When entanglement prevention efforts fail, disentanglement efforts occasionally succeed, despite the fact that such efforts are more frequently impossible or unsuccessful. Nevertheless, they do in fact make a significant difference. During the period 2004-2008 there were at least four documented cases of entanglements for which the intervention of disentanglement teams averted a likely death of a right whale. For the first time in 2009 and again in 2011, scientists successfully used chemical sedation of an entangled whale to reduce stress on the animal and to reduce the time spent working with it. After disentangling the whale, scientists attached a satellite tracking tag, administered a dose of antibiotics to treat entanglement wounds and then another drug to reverse the sedation. Despite concerns that the trauma might impair reproduction, researchers confirmed in January 2013 that three disentangled whales had given birth.
Recently,[when?] the US Navy proposed plans to build a new undersea naval sonar training range immediately adjacent to northern right whale calving grounds in shallow waters off the Florida/Georgia border. In September 2012, legal challenges by leading environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council were denied in federal court, allowing the Navy to proceed.
Population and distribution
According to census of individual whales identified using photo-identification techniques, the latest available stock assessment data (August 2012) indicates that a minimum of 396 recognized individuals were known to be alive in the western North Atlantic in 2010, up from 361 in 2005. In the eastern North Atlantic, the right whale population likely numbers in the low tens at best, with little known regarding their distribution and migration pattern. Scientists believe that this population may be functionally extinct.
In spring, summer and autumn, the western North Atlantic population feeds 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. A whale of unknown species, thought to be a right whale was seen off Steenbanken, Nehterlands in July, 2005 and possibly the same animal was previously seen in Texel.
In January 2009, one animal was sighted off Pico Island, Azores, the first confirmed appearance there since 1888. This animal was later identified as "Pico", a female from the western Atlantic group. Right whales have also on rare occasion been observed in the Mediterranean Ocean. In May 1991, a petty officer of the Italian Navy happened to be in the water with his camera about 13 km (8.1 mi) off the small island of Sant' Antioco (southwestern Sardinia), when a right whale happened to swim by – his photos comprise the only confirmed sighting in the 20th century. Earlier known occurrences of right whales in the Mediterranean include the stranding of a juvenile near Taranto (southeastern Italy) in 1877 and the sighting of two (one of which was later captured) in the bay of Castiglione (Algiers) in 1888.  and Portugal. The Norway sightings appear to be of vagrants, or 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. We need to be vigilant and still do our part to prevent the whales from being killed."
— Monica Zani, New England Aquarium, Endangered right whales appear to be on the rebound, CNN.com
In contrast, 2012 appears to have been the worst calving season since 2000, with only seven calves sighted – and one of those is believed to have died. This is significantly below the annual average of 20 calves per year over the last decade. As the gestation period for right whales is a year long, researchers believe that a lack of food in the whales' summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy during the summer of 2010 may be linked to the poor season in 2012.
The right whale was purported to have reached a population of 500 in the North Atlantic which was assumed to have been achieved for the first time in centuries when counted in 2013. The population of the whale has been increasing at about 2.5 percent per year, but this is below the optimal goal of 6 or 7 percent that researchers were hoping to attain.
On a global level, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS, or the “Bonn Convention”) is a multilateral treaty specializing in the conservation of migratory species, their habitats and migration routes. CMS has listed the North Atlantic right whale on Appendix I, which identifies it as a migratory species threatened with extinction. This obligates member nations to strive towards strict protection of these animals, habitat conservation or restoration, mitigation of obstacles to migration, and control of other factors that might endanger them.
Additionally, CMS encourages concerted action among the range states of many Appendix I species. To that end, a small portion of the eastern Atlantic population's range is covered by the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS). The Atlantic area bounded on the west by a line running from Cape St. Vincent in southwest Portugal to Casablanca, Morocco, and on the east by the Straight of Gibraltar.
Another multilateral treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, (CITES, or the “Washington Convention”), also lists the North Atlantic right whale on its own Appendix I. Being so listed prohibits international trade (import or export) in specimens of this species or any derivative products (e.g. food or drug products, bones, trophies), except for scientific research and other exceptional cases with a permit specific to that specimen.
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