Eubalaena glacialis 

Scope: Europe
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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
French Baleine De Biscaye
Spanish Ballena Franca Del Norte
Taxonomic Notes: The taxonomy follows the view of the IWC Scientific Committee which now recognises 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 findings of Rosenbaum et al. (2000).

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

Rice (1998) classifies 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 species, their clear geographical separation ensures that no practical problem arises from treating them as distinct species.

The species was formerly known as the black right whale to distinguish it from the Greenland right whale, Balaena mysticetus, which is now called the bowhead whale. The term “right whale” is acceptable for specimens of any of three Eubalaena species, when the species in question is implicit from the geographical context.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Critically Endangered D (Regional assessment) ver 3.1
Year Published: 2007
Date Assessed: 2007-01-26
Assessor(s): Species account by IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group; regional assessment by European Mammal Assessment team
Reviewer(s): Greg Donovan and Philip Hammond
The eastern North Atlantic population is clearly extremely small (fewer than 50 mature individuals) (IWC 2001a); it is classified as Critically Endangered (CR).

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The right whale in the past was common on both sides of the North Atlantic. It appears to be effectively extinct in the eastern North Atlantic, but in the past probably ranged from a calving ground in the Golfo de Cintra (23°N) off the 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, and Scotian Shelf, with some individuals reaching the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Davis and Denmark Straits and occasionally Iceland and Norway. It is 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 stocks.
Countries occurrence:
Belgium; Faroe Islands; France; Germany; Iceland; Ireland; Netherlands; Norway; Portugal; Spain; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; United Kingdom
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Atlantic – western central; Atlantic – northwest
Additional data:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Northwest Atlantic
It is not clear when Basque whaling began in the northwestern North Atlantic, but it had been established by no later than 1530. An estimated 25,000-40,000 right whales were taken off Labrador and Newfoundland between 1530 and 1610 (Aguilar 1986) although recent genetic data have suggested that many of these were bowheads (Reeves 2001, Rastogi et al. 2004). Shore-based whaling along the US east coast began in the mid 17th century, with an estimated 2,000-3,800 taken during 1696-1734. Whaling continued sporadically over the next two centuries, with a few hundred taken in total until the last catch in 1935 (Reeves et al. 1999).

The current population is of about 300–350 individuals off the east coast of North America. IWC (2001a) obtained a minimum estimate of 263 in 1996 from identified animals known to be alive at that time, and indicated that the true population is probably not much higher. Kraus et al. (2001) provided a minimum estimate of 299 in 1998 based on animals presumed to be alive at that time (and not missing for more than 5 years). Preliminary analysis of more recent data have yielded estimates similar to those above. The 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, and the Bay of Fundy, but not all the whales using the wintering ground are seen in these major summering areas (IWC 2001a). There have been a few sightings in recent years in the Gulf of St Lawrence, two off Iceland in 2003, and one in the former whaling ground off Cape Farewell in 2004 (IWC 2005). A sighting off Norway in 1999 was identified as a well-known animal from the western North Atlantic population (IWC 2001a).

Northeast Atlantic
The first records of Basque whaling in the Bay of Biscay are from the 11th century. At least dozens of whales were taken each year in the Bay of Biscay until a marked decline was evident by 1650; whaling continued there until 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 Balaena mysticetus (bowhead) being the main species only in the far north (Greenland and Svalbard) (Aguilar 1986). Smith et al. (2006) document extensive whaling for E. glacialis in the North Cape area (northern Norway) in the 17th century. Right whaling seems to have declined from the mid-17th century and 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 British Isles and off Iceland, where at least 120 right whales were 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 which escaped.

It is not clear whether there is a remnant Northeast Atlantic population or whether the animals seen here in modern times are strays from the west. There have been only eight confirmed sightings from 1960 to 1999, including the animal sighted in Norway in 1999 which was matched with the western north Atlantic population (IWC 2001a). 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 recent survey of the former Cintra Bay calving ground off the Western Sahara failed to locate any right whales (Notarbartolo di Sciara et al. 1998), although survey conditions were often poor.
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:Right whales are often encountered as singles or pairs, with larger groups or aggregations observed socializing, mating or feeding. They can be aerially active and generally raise their flukes before a deep dive. Right whales can be individually identified by the patterns of callosities on the head, as well as by scars (Kraus et al. 1986).

The mating system appears to involve sperm competition (males competing to inseminate females, not so much by physical aggression, as by delivering large loads of sperm, thereby displacing that of other males). Young are born in winter and spring in calving areas in low temperate or subtropical latitudes.

Right whales feed on calanoid copepods and other small invertebrates (smaller copepods, 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.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Right whales in the North Atlantic are no longer hunted, and the most serious current threats are deaths and injuries from entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships off the eastern coast of North America (Knowlton and Kraus 2001).

During 1999-2003, the recorded human-caused mortality and serious injury averaged 2.6 animals per year, of which 1.6 per year were fishery entanglements and 1.0 vessel collisions. A further 11 deaths (8 ship strikes, 1 entanglement and two of unknown cause) were reported between 2004 and the end of 2006. Based on scarring from fishing gear it is estimated that at least 72% of the right whale population had been involved in an entanglement event at some point in their lives, and that 10-30% of the population are entangled each year (Clapham 2005). Because some anthropogenic mortalities probably pass undetected, reported rates are likely minima.

Hypotheses that have been advanced to explain the low reproductive rates observed for several years include: genetic factors, poor nutrition, chemical contaminants, biotoxins, disease (IWC 2001b, Reeves et al. 2001). However, reproduction in recent years has increased; whether this rate will continue is unknown.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The right whale has been protected from hunting by the IWC and its predecessor since 1935, and is also protected in Canada, a non-member of the IWC. Efforts are underway in both the US and Canada aimed at limiting deaths and injuries due to ship strikes and entanglements. In both countries, recovery plans have been developed involving collaboration between the various stakeholders. Regulations are in place in the US requiring modifications to fishing gear and restrictions on certain types of such gear in areas and times where right whales are common (Clapham 2005). 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 right whales in the area. Regulations specify minimum approach distances for whale-watching and other vessels. Shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy have been moved, with the approval of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), to take them away from the major summer concentrations of right whales. A regulatory proposal to enforce maximum transit speeds on vessels passing through right whale habitats off the US east coast was still under review in 2007.

There is as yet no indication of a decrease in the rate of anthropogenic mortalities, hence it is unclear whether the measures taken to date are sufficient.

Citation: Species account by IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group; regional assessment by European Mammal Assessment team. 2007. Eubalaena glacialis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T41712A10541234. . Downloaded on 21 June 2018.
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