Western North Atlantic right whales were once abundant along the coasts of the United States and Canada. However, beginning with coastal whaling operations centuries ago, right whales became the target of intensive hunting for their lucrative blubber and baleen. Despite more than 60 years of protection from hunting, no more than 325 western North Atlantic right whales remain.
Right whales average 45 feet in length and can weigh up to fifty tons. Unlike most other whale species, right whales have no dorsal fin, resulting in a very broad, flat back. They are primarily black, however some individuals have large white patches on their chin and belly. Right whales also have distinctive patches of calloused skin on their heads (called callosities), which are used to identify individual animals.
Right whales were so named because they were considered the "right" whale to hunt—they are often found in inshore waters, swim slowly and float when dead. They yield large quantities of blubber, which is rendered into oil, and baleen, which was once used like today's plastics.
Considered the world's most endangered large whale, right whales have been protected from hunting since 1935. However, the western North Atlantic population still only numbers around 325 animals. One reason for the lack of recovery in this population is the slow reproductive rate. Females bear a single calf every 4-6 years, and unfortunately this calving interval appears to be increasing.
Habitat & Diet
Western North Atlantic right whales are found along the east coast of the United States and Canada. The animals migrate along the coast seasonally, but are found in 5 main critical habitats. The three critical habitats in U.S. waters include: the southeastern U.S., utilized during the winter months as the only known calving ground for the species; the Great South Channel, off of Massachusetts; and Cape Cod Bay.
Right whales are baleen whales, utilizing baleen rather than teeth for feeding. They swim through dense patches of tiny zooplankton with their mouths open, catching large quantities of the prey on their baleen plates. A single right whale can consume 4,000 pounds of food per day.
Threats to Right Whales
Right whales, along with gray whales, were the first whales to be protected from hunting by a League of Nations Resolution in 1935. In addition, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 were established to protect northern right whales and other marine mammals against further harassment.
Unfortunately, despite over 60 years of protection, the western North Atlantic population of right whales does not appear to be recovering. One mathematical model predicts extinction of the species in a little over one hundred years. The lack of recovery for this species is due, in large part, to the continued impacts of humans.
Human-caused mortality in the form of ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements accounts for almost one-half of all known mortality in the western North Atlantic right whale population. It is estimated that two right whales per year die or suffer serious injury from collisions with ships. In addition, right whales face problems of decreased genetic diversity, habitat degradation, increasing reproductive intervals, and decreased prey availability.