Eubalaena glacialis 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenidae

Scientific Name: Eubalaena glacialis (P.L.S. Müller, 1776)
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English North Atlantic Right Whale, Black Right Whale, North Atlantic Right Whale
French Baleine De Biscaye
Spanish Ballena Franca Del Norte
Taxonomic Notes: The taxonomy follows the view of the IWC Scientific Committee and the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Committee on Taxonomy which now recognize Right Whales in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere as three distinct species in the genus Eubalaena, namely E. glacialis (North Atlantic Right Whale), E. japonica (North Pacific Right Whale), and E. australis (Southern Right Whale) (IWC 2004), based mainly on the mtDNA phylogenetic findings of Rosenbaum et al. (2000).

The North Atlantic Right Whale was included in previous Red Lists together with the North Pacific Right Whale under the species name E. glacialis (Baillie and Groombridge 1996).

Rice (1998) classified Right Whales in the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere as the single species Balaena glacialis, in the genus Balaena along with B. mysticetus, the Bowhead Whale. While not all cetologists accept that the three Right Whale taxa qualify as full biological species, their clear geographical separation means that their treatment as separate taxa for conservation purposes is appropriate.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered D ver 3.1
Year Published: 2018
Date Assessed: 2017-12-19
Assessor(s): Cooke, J.G.
Reviewer(s): Brownell Jr., R.L., Clapham, P.J., Jackson, J., Reeves, R., Taylor, B.L. & Zerbini, A.N.
Contributor(s): Ashe, E.
Facilitator/Compiler(s): Lowry, L.
The best recent (2015) estimate of the number of North Atlantic Right Whales is 458 (Pace et al. 2017), which would correspond to about 266 mature individuals using the fraction mature of 0.58 (Taylor et al. 2007). Using the lower 95% credible interval of the estimate (444) results in an estimate of 258 mature individuals. Given the evidence that the population has been declining since 2010, the mortality event in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada, in 2017 which will have accelerated the decline, and the low proportion of females in the population (about 40%), a classification as Endangered under IUCN Red List criterion D remains appropriate at this time. If the recent decline continues, the species should be reclassified as Critically Endangered under criterion C2a(ii).
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The Right Whale formerly was common on both sides of the North Atlantic. It appears to be effectively extirpated in the eastern North Atlantic but in the past probably ranged from a calving ground in the Golfo de Cintra (23°N) off Western Sahara, through the Azores, Bay of Biscay, western British Isles, and the Norwegian Sea to the North Cape (hence the Dutch name Noordkaper). In the western North Atlantic the species migrates from a calving ground off Florida and Georgia along the eastern seaboard of North America, to summering grounds in the Gulf of Maine, Bay of Fundy, Scotian Shelf, and Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Today, North Atlantic Right Whales are regularly surveyed in the winter calving ground off Florida and Georgia, and in spring/summer feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay, the Great South Channel off Massachusetts, the Gulf of Maine, the Scotian Shelf, the Bay of Fundy, and increasingly in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, but not all the whales using the wintering ground are seen in these major summering areas (IWC 2001a). There have been a few sightings off Cape Farewell (southern tip of Greenland) (Brown et al. 2007) and Iceland (Hamilton et al. 2007), and in the Gulf of Mexico (Ward-Geiger et al. 2011).

There have been very few sightings in the northeast Atlantic in recent times. A possible Right Whale was sighted in the Bay of Biscay in 1977 (Aguilar 1981) and a cow-calf pair was sighted off Cape Vincent, Portugal in 1995 (Martin and Walker 1997). A survey of the former Cintra Bay calving ground off Western Sahara failed to locate any Right Whales (Notarbartolo di Sciara et al. 1998). A sighting off Norway in 1999 was identified as an animal from the western North Atlantic population (Jacobsen et al. 2004). A Right Whale sighted in the Azores in January 2009 matched an individual sighted in September 2008 in the Bay of Fundy, Canada (Silva et al. 2012). There have been unconfirmed reports from northwestern Ireland and the Canary Islands. 

The distribution map shows where the species may occur, based on oceanography. The species has not been recorded for all the states within the hypothetical range as shown on the map. States for which confirmed records of the species exist are indicated in the list of range states as "native".

Countries occurrence:
Bermuda; Canada; Greenland; Iceland; Ireland; Norway; Portugal (Azores, Madeira, Portugal (mainland)); Saint Pierre and Miquelon; Spain (Canary Is., Spain (mainland)); United Kingdom; United States (Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia)
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Atlantic – northwest; Atlantic – western central
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):NoEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):UnknownExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Current status

Northwestern Atlantic
Based mainly on photo-identification data, the North Atlantic Right Whale population was estimated to have been increasing at an average rate of 2.8% per year from 1990 to 2010, peaking at about 480 individuals in 2010. Abundance declined slightly from 2010 to 2015, following a run of years of below average reproduction which is reflected in both lower calf counts and longer calving intervals (Pace et al. 2017). The best recent estimate is 468 animals (95% credible interval 444-471) in 2015. Associated with a lower estimated survival rate for females, the female proportion in the population is estimated to be only about 40%, despite a birth sex ratio close to 50:50. The abundance will have declined further in 2017 given 17 documented deaths (including 12 in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Canada, and five in northeastern U.S. waters), in 2017 or nearly 4% of the population (NOAA Fisheries 2018).

There has also been a change since 2011 in the Atlantic Right Whales' patterns of habitat use (IWC 2017). There may have been a northward shift in summer distribution into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, leaving fewer whales in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine (Stokstad 2017) but increased observations in the Gulf may also have been due to an increase in observer effort that has not been quantified across the years (Daoust et al. 2017).

The rate of increase of North Atlantic Right Whales compares unfavourably with that of Southern Right Whales (Rolland et al. 2016). While known cases of human-caused mortality (entanglements and ship strikes) up to 2016 averaged only about 1% of the population annually (Hayes et al. 2017), entanglement-caused deaths probably exceed the known cases because death is not always immediate. An analysis of individuals observed to be entangled in fishing gear between 1995 and 2008 showed approximately 25% lower survival rates than whales not seen to be carrying gear (Robbins et al. 2015). The occurrence of skin lesions of a kind not seen in Southern Right Whales was recorded in North Atlantic Right Whales during the period 1995 to 2002, and appeared to be correlated with the failure to reproduce of females that would normally have been ready to calve (Rolland et al. 2007). Over the same period, body condition as measured by blubber thickness was poorer in the North Atlantic whales than in Southern Right Whales (IWC 2001b).

Calf counts have been conducted since 1980, and calf production has fluctuated. It was particularly low during 1998-2000 and again during 2010-2017 (Pettis et al. 2017). Years of low calf production have been correlated with environmental conditions (Greene et al. 2003) and with poor body condition of adults (Rolland et al. 2016). Based on the pattern of occurrence on the calving ground of females at different stages in the calving cycle, Browning et al. (2010) were able to infer that there is considerable cryptic perinatal mortality in addition to known calf deaths. For the period 1989-2003, they documented 191 surviving calves and 17 known calf deaths and estimated a further 28 cryptic calf deaths. The mean interval between successful calvings appears to be longer for North Atlantic Right Whales than for Southern Right Whales (Browning et al. 2010) although the published estimates are not fully comparable.

Northeastern Atlantic
Due to the paucity of records in recent times (see the Geographic Range section), and the fact that at least some of the records are migrants from the west, it is not clear whether there is a remnant northeastern Atlantic breeding population. It is also unclear whether in the past the animals in the northern part of the range (off Iceland and Norway) belonged mainly to the western or eastern breeding populations, or to what degree the two breeding populations were separate.

Historical population size
The first records of Basque whaling in the Bay of Biscay are from the 11th century. At least dozens of Right Whales were taken each year in the Bay of Biscay until a marked decline was evident by 1650, and whaling declined during the 18th century. Basque whalers arrived in Iceland as early as 1412, and participated in the Right Whale fishery around the British Isles and Norway from the 14th to the 18th century, but probably many more whales were taken by Dutch, Danish, British, and Norwegian whalers. Quantitative estimates of catches are not available. Historic Right Whale catches as far north as Iceland and Norway appear to have been mainly E. glacialis, with Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus) being the main species only in the far north (Greenland and Svalbard) (Aguilar 1986). Smith et al. (2006) documented extensive whaling for Right Whales in the North Cape area (northern Norway) in the 17th century. Right Whale hunting in the northeastern Atlantic seems to have declined from the mid-17th century and all but disappeared by the mid-18th century, but there was a brief period of Right Whale catches by modern whalers operating from shore stations in the northwestern British Isles and off Iceland, with at least 120 Right Whales taken during 1881-1924 (Collett 1909, Brown 1986). The last recorded catch was a cow-calf pair off Madeira in 1967, accompanied by a third individual that escaped.

It is not clear when Basque whaling first spread to the northwestern North Atlantic, but it had been established no later than 1530. It had long been thought that large numbers (tens of thousands) of Right Whales were taken off Labrador and Newfoundland by the Basques between 1530 and 1610 (Aguilar 1986, Reeves 2001) but recent genetic evidence suggest that many if not most of these were Bowheads (Rastogi et al. 2004, McLeod et al. 2008). Shore-based whaling along the U.S. east coast began in the mid 17th century and continued at least sporadically over the next two and a half centuries (Reeves et al. 1999).

Historical catches, particularly in the northeastern Atlantic, are insufficiently documented to allow estimation of the pre-whaling population size. Monsarrat et al. (2016) used historical catches in the North Pacific, which are better documented, to relate pre-whaling Right Whale summer abundance to habitat parameters, and then applied this relationship to the North Atlantic. This resulted in an estimated pre-whaling total abundance in the North Atlantic of 9,000-21,000, based on ecological carrying capacity. Much of this population is predicted to have summered in the Norwegian Sea and on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.

The historical population reductions occurred more than three generations ago, hence they do not trigger the Red List population reduction criteria (A).
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Continuing decline of mature individuals:Yes
Extreme fluctuations:NoPopulation severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:Right Whales feed on calanoid copepods and other small invertebrates (smaller copepods, euphausids (krill), pteropods, and larval barnacles), generally by slowly skimming through patches of concentrated prey at or below the surface. The most common prey species is the copepod Calanus finmarchicus (Baumgartner et al. 2007).

Relative abundance of Right Whales has been positively correlated with copepod density off the northeastern coast of the United States (Pendleton et al. 2009), and also correlated with sea surface temperature, sediment type, and bathymetry (Good 2008). Baumgartner and Mate (2005) attached satellite-monitored radio tags to Right Whales in the Bay of Fundy in order to investigate their habitat use. They found that when the tagged animals left the Bay, they did not frequently visit the deep basins of the Gulf of Maine and Scotian Shelf, where abundances of Calanus finmarchicus are thought to be high. Instead, the whales visited areas characterized by low bottom water temperatures, high surface salinity, and high surface stratification. No evidence was found that the tagged Right Whales associated with oceanic fronts or regions with high standing stocks of phytoplankton.

Good (2008) investigated the relationship between Right Whale distribution and physical oceanographic conditions in an attempt to create predictive models of essential habitat for the species. The model correctly identified well documented current and historical calving grounds in the eastern North Atlantic, and suggested that suitable calving habitat on the east coast of the United States may extend farther north than is currently recognized. In the Gulf of Maine, Right Whale distribution was correlated primarily with sea surface temperature, sediment type and bathymetry. The predictive models employed by Good (2008) offered insights into habitat preferences for foraging but failed to wholly capture the physical factors underlying Right Whale distribution.
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Unknown
Generation Length (years):24
Movement patterns:Full Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This North Atlantic Right Whale is no longer hunted. It was once the target of major commercial whaling.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Right Whales in the North Atlantic are no longer hunted, and the most serious current threat is death or injury from entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships off the east coast of North America (Kraus et al. 2016). During 2010-2014, there were 29 confirmed human-caused deaths or serious injuries, including 24 entanglements and five ship strikes (Hayes et al. 2017). Because some anthropogenic deaths probably pass undetected, the reported events are considered minima. Entanglement events appear to be increasing in both frequency and severity (Knowlton et al. 2016).

An examination of photo-identification photographs revealed that most individual Right Whales (82.9%) possess evidence of being entangled at least once while over half (59.0%) of the individuals have been entangled more than once. The evidence suggests that Right Whales acquire new entanglement scars on an annual basis, juvenile whales at a higher rate than adults (Knowlton et al. 2012). Entanglement events that are initially sublethal probably also result in excess mortality over time. Based on observations during 1995-2008 of 50 free-living individuals observed to be carrying fishing gear, compared with 459 individuals never seen with gear during that period, Robbins et al. (2015) estimated an excess mortality of approximately 25% during the first year after which the individual was first seen with gear. Because some fatalities may occur before the whale is seen with gear, this provides a minimum estimate of the fatality rate of entangled whales in addition to the immediate fatalities.  

In the Bay of Fundy and on the Scotian Shelf (Canada), groundfish hook-and-line gear had been found to pose the greatest risk to Right Whales during the summer, and lobster fisheries during the spring and autumn migration periods (Vanderlaan et al. 2011). However, of 12 right whale deaths recorded in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in summer 2017, 6 could be examined, and the cause of death was found to be entanglement in snow crab fishing gear in 2 cases and suspected to be blunt trauma consistent with vessel strike in 4 cases. In addition, five live whales were found entangled including at least four in snow crab gear. Three of those whales were freed by human intervention or freed themselves, and the fate of the remaining two is unknown (Daoust et al. 2017, Taylor and Walker 2017).

Right Whales appear to be the most vulnerable large whales to ship strikes (Vanderlaan and Taggart 2007). Ship strikes were found to be the cause of death for 53% of the 40 Right Whales necropsied between 1970 and 2006 and could be responsible for up to 10 individual Right Whale deaths per year (Vanderlaan et al. 2009). Known Right Whale deaths due to ship strikes have declined from 2.0 (2000–2006) to 1.0 per year (2010–2014) (Hayes et al. 2017). The decrease may be due, in part, to spatial mitigation efforts (so-called Seasonal Management Areas, or SMAs) implemented in U.S. waters in 2008 (Hoop et al. 2015). The SMAs were designed to correspond to Right Whale feeding, calving, and migration areas and it is estimated that this mitigation effort reduced mortality by 80-90% (Conn and Silber 2013). The risk of ship strike was reduced by an estimated 82% due to an “Area to Be Avoided” vessel-routing initiative implemented by the International Maritime Organization in the Roseway Basin Area on the Scotian Shelf (Vanderlaan and Taggart 2009).

Low-frequency in-water noise from shipping activity has been linked to physiological stress (increased glucocorticoid levels) in North Atlantic Right Whales (Rolland et al. 2012). Acoustic masking from anthropogenic noise (especially ship noise) may negatively impact reproduction by interfering with courtship vocalizations and may negatively impact prey acquisition by reducing communication and feeding opportunities (Hatch et al. 2012).

Environmental neurotoxins produced as a result of harmful algal blooms have the potential to cause negative effects on reproduction and development. Paralytic shellfish toxin and domoic acid that were detected in fecal samples indicate that Right Whales are exposed to environmental neurotoxins on an annual basis for up to six months of the year (Durbin et al. 2002, Doucette et al. 2012).

No population-level increase in mortality rates had been detected up to 2015, and the estimated population decline during 2010-15 appears to have been due to poor reproduction (Pace et al. 2017). The reduced reproduction may have been related to the apparent decline in average body condition (Rolland et al. 2016) which may in turn be related to some of the influences discussed above. The high number of deaths recorded in 2017, at nearly 4% of the population size, will have accelerated the population decline.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions:

The Right Whale has been protected from hunting by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling since it came into force in 1948, and by its predecessor in the 1930s. It is listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and as a Species at Risk under Canadian law.

Efforts are underway in both the U.S. and Canada aimed at limiting North Atlantic Right Whale deaths and injuries due to ship strikes and entanglements. In both countries, recovery plans have been implemented involving collaboration among the various stakeholders. A variety of policy measures such as voluntary areas to be avoided, ship-position reporting, mandatory speed time-area restrictions, and modifications to the International Maritime Organization’s traffic separation schemes, have been implemented to reduce ship strikes (Vanderlaan et al. 2009).  In U.S. waters, mandatory time-area speed restrictions in the form of Seasonal Management Areas were implemented in 2008 in an effort to mitigate ship strikes. A Mandatory Ship Reporting Scheme has been in place since 1999 in two areas in the Right Whale calving and summering grounds to enable vessels to be warned of whales in the area. Regulations specify minimum approach distances for whale-watching and other vessels. Regulations are in place in the U.S. involving restrictions on certain types of fishing gear in areas and times where Right Whales are common (NOAA Fisheries 2016).

The Atlantic Right Whale is listed in Appendix I of both the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Citation: Cooke, J.G. 2018. Eubalaena glacialis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T41712A50380891. . Downloaded on 17 August 2018.
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