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
French Baleine De Biscaye
Spanish Ballena Franca Del Norte
Taxonomic Notes: The taxonomy follows the view of the IWC Scientific Committee which now recognizes 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). This taxonomy is also accepted by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

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 ensures that no practical problem arises from treating them as distinct species.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered D ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2008-07-01
Assessor(s): Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N.
Reviewer(s): Taylor, B.L. & Notarbartolo di Sciara, G.
The major decline for this species occurred more than three generations ago. The number of reproductively active females was determined to be 70 animals in 1998. Even allowing for the possibility that some mothers have been missed in the identification catalogue, this means that the total number of mature (i.e., reproductively active) individuals is well below the Endangered threshold of 250. The eastern North Atlantic subpopulation, if it still exists, is clearly extremely small (fewer than 50 mature individuals). If listed separately, it would be classified as Critically Endangered, Possibly Extinct (CR PE).
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 extinct 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, 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.

The range 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 included in the list of native range states.
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
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 no later than 1530. It has 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). Shore-based whaling along the US 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, IWC 2001a). Reeves et al. (2007) estimated as a lower bound that some 5,500 Right Whales (and “possibly twice that number”) were removed by whaling in the western North Atlantic between 1634–1951.

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 was 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 five 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 2001b). 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 (Jacobsen et al. 2004).

Calf counts have been collected since 1980 but counts in the 1980s were probably underestimates, due to non-coverage of the winter calving grounds. Calf production has fluctuated, possibly linked to environmental conditions (Greene et al. 2003). It was low during 1998–2000 (average of three per year, with an associated calving interval of 5.7 years, Kraus et al. 2001) but high during 2001–2005 (average of 23 per year) (Clapham 2005). Nineteen calves were recorded in 2006, and the average inter-birth interval of the mothers concerned was 3.2 years (Anon. 2006).

An analysis of survival and reproductive rates (Caswell et al. 1999) concluded that survival rates had declined and that, as of 1995, the population was in decline. However, the finding of population decline was based on the assumption that only 38% of mature females were reproductively active, whereas the true figure appears to be over 70% (IWC 2001b). A subsequent review of survival rates concluded that survival rates probably were lower in the 1990s than in the 1980s (Clapham 2003). No more recent data on survival rates have been published to date; while reproduction has noticeably increased in this population, mortality has remained high and is a source of serious concern (IWC 2006).
Increase, if any, in this population is at a much lower rate than in the Southern Right Whale. Per capita calf production and calving intervals have been highly variable over the last decade. The occurrence of skin lesions, of a kind not seen in Southern Hemisphere Right Whales, was recorded during the period 1995 to 2002, and appeared to be correlated with the failure to reproduce of females that would normally be ready to calve (Reeves et al. 2001, Rolland et al. 2007). Over the same period, body condition as measured by blubber thickness was poorer in the North Atlantic than in Southern Hemisphere Right Whales (IWC 2001c). Mortality rates are higher than in Southern Hemisphere Right Whales, due largely to human-caused deaths (IWC 2001b) (see Threats section).

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, 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 Balaena mysticetus (Bowhead) being the main species only in the far north (Greenland and Svalbard) (Aguilar 1986). Smith et al. (2006) documented extensive whaling for E. glacialis in the North Cape area (northern Norway) in the 17th century. Right whaling 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 British Isles and off Iceland, with 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 that escaped.

It is not clear whether there is a remnant Northeast Atlantic population or whether the animals seen there 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 2001b). 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 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 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 (Perry et al. 1999).

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This species is no longer harvested. 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 eastern coast of North America (Knowlton and Kraus 2001, Kraus and Rolland 2007).

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 (eight ship strikes, one 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 is entangled each year (Clapham 2005). Because some anthropogenic deaths probably pass undetected, reported rates are considered minimal.

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 2001c, Reeves et al. 2001). However, reproduction has increased in recent years.

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 among the various stakeholders.

Regulations are in place in the US requiring modifications to fishing gear and restrictions on certain types of 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 mortality, hence it is unclear whether the measures taken to date are sufficient.

The species is listed in Appendix I of both CITES and CMS.

Classifications [top]

9. Marine Neritic -> 9.1. Marine Neritic - Pelagic
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
10. Marine Oceanic -> 10.1. Marine Oceanic - Epipelagic (0-200m)
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
3. Species management -> 3.2. Species recovery

In-Place Research, Monitoring and Planning
  Systematic monitoring scheme:Yes
In-Place Land/Water Protection and Management
In-Place Species Management
In-Place Education
  Included in international legislation:Yes
  Subject to any international management/trade controls:Yes
4. Transportation & service corridors -> 4.3. Shipping lanes
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Unknown   
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.2. Intentional use: (large scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Past, Unlikely to Return ♦ scope:Whole (>90%) ♦ severity:Very Rapid Declines ⇒ Impact score:Past Impact 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.4. Unintentional effects: (large scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Whole (>90%)   
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

1. Research -> 1.2. Population size, distribution & trends
1. Research -> 1.5. Threats
1. Research -> 1.6. Actions
3. Monitoring -> 3.1. Population trends

Bibliography [top]

Aguilar, A. 1981. The black right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, in the Cantabrian Sea. Reports of the International Whaling Commission 31: 457-459.

Aguilar, A. 1986. A review of old Basque whaling and its effect on the right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) of the North Atlantic. Reports of the International Whaling Commission Special Issue 10: 191-199.

Anonymous. 2006. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium 2006 Report Card.

Baillie, J. and Groombridge, B. (comps and eds). 1996. 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Brown, S. G. 1986. Twentieth-century records of right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Reports of the International Whaling Commission Special Issue 10: 121-127.

Caswell, H., Fujiwara, M. and Brault, S. 1999. Declining survival probability threatens the North Atlantic right whale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96: 3308-3313.

Clapham, P. J. 2003. Report of the working group on survival estimation for North Atlantic right whales. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Clapham, P. J. 2005. Update on North Atlantic right whale research and management. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Collett, R. 1909. A few notes on the whale Balaena glacialis and its capture in recent years in the North Atlantic by Norwegian whalers. Zoological Society of London: 91-98.

Greene, C. H., Pershing, A. J., Kenney, R. D. and Jossi, J. W. 2003. Impact of climate variability on the recovery of endangered North Atlantic right whales. Oceanography 16: 98-103.

International Whaling Commission. 2001. Report of the subcommittee on the comprehensive assessment of whale stocks – other stocks. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 3: 209-228.

International Whaling Commission. 2001. Report of the workshop on the comprehensive assessment of right whales: a worldwide comparison. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management Special Issue 2: 1-60.

International Whaling Commission. 2001. Report of the workshop status and trends of western North Atlantic right whales. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management Specal Issue 2: 61-87.

International Whaling Commission. 2004. Classification of the order Cetacea. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 6(1): xi-xii.

International Whaling Commission. 2005. Report of the subcommittee on bowhead, right and gray whales. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 7: 189-209.

International Whaling Commission. 2006. Report of the Scientific Committee. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 8: 49.

IUCN. 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (ver. 2012.2). Available at: (Accessed: 17 October 2012).

Jacobsen, K. O., Marx, M. K. and Oien, N. 2004. Two-way trans-Atlantic migration of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Marine Mammal Science 20(1): 161-166.

Knowlton, A. R. and Kraus, S. D. 2001. Mortality and serious injury of northern right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 2: 193-208.

Kraus, S. D. and Rolland, R. M. (eds). 2007. The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, UK and Massachusetts, USA.

Kraus, S. D., Hamilton, P. K., Kenney, R. D., Knowlton, A. R. and Slay, C. K. 2001. Reproductive parameters of the North Atlantic right whale. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management Special Issue 2: 231-236.

Martin, A. R. and Walker, F. J. 1997. Sighting of a right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) with calf off S. W. Portugal. Marine Mammal Science 13(1): 139-141.

Notarbartolo Di Sciara, G., Politi, E. and Bayed, A. 1998. A winter cetacean survey off southern Morocco, with a special emphasis on right whales. Reports of the International Whaling Commission 48: 547-550.

Perry, S. L., Demaster, D. P. and Silber, G. K. 1999. The great whales: history and status of six species listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Marine Fisheries Review 61(1): 1-74.

Rastogi, T., Brown, M. W., Mcleod, B. A., Frasier, T. R., Grenier, R., Cumbaa, S. L., Nadarajah, J. and White, B. N. 2004. Genetic analysis of 16th-century whale bones prompts a revision of the impact of Basque whaling on right and bowhead whales in the western North Atlantic. Canadian Journal of Zoology 82: 1647-1654.

Reeves, R. R. 2001. Overview of catch history, historic abundance and distribution of right whales in the western North Atlantic and in Cintra Bay, West Africa. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 2: 187-191.

Reeves, R. R., Brewick, J. M. and Mitchell, E. D. 1999. History of whaling and estimated kill of right whales, Balaena glacialis, in the northeastern United States, 1620-1924. Marine Fisheries Review 61(3): 1-36.

Reeves, R. R., Rolland, R. and Clapham, P. J. 2001. Causes of reproductive failure in North Atlantic right whales: new avenues of research. Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference Document 01-16.

Reeves, R. R., Smith, T. D. and Josephson, E. A. 2007. Near-annihilation of a species: right whaling in the North Atlantic. In: S. D. Kraus and R. M. Rolland (eds), The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads, pp. 39-74. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Rice, D.W. 1998. Marine Mammals of the World: Systematics and Distribution. Society for Marine Mammalogy, Lawrence, Kansas.

Rolland, R. M., Hamilton, P. K., Marx, M. K., Pettis, H. M., Angell, C. M. and Moore, M. J. 2007. External perspectives on right whale health. In: S. D. Kraus and R. M. Rolland (eds), The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads, pp. 273-309. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Rosenbaum, H. C., Brownell Jr., R. L., Brown, M. W., Scaeff, S. C., Portway, V., White, B. N., Malik, S. and Pastene, L. A. 2000. World-wide genetic differentiation of Eubalaena: Questioning the number of right whale species. Molecular Ecology 9: 1793-1802.

Smith, T. D., Barthelmess, K. and Reeves, R. R. 2006. Using historical records to relocate a long-forgotten summer feeding ground of North Atlantic right whales. Marine Mammal Science 22(3): 723-734.

Citation: Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N. 2012. Eubalaena glacialis. In: . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T41712A17084065. . Downloaded on 19 June 2018.
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