Eubalaena australis 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenidae

Scientific Name: Eubalaena australis (Desmoulins, 1822)
Infra-specific Taxa Assessed:
Common Name(s):
English Southern Right Whale
French Baleine Australe
Spanish Ballena Franca Austral
Taxonomic Notes:

The Southern Right Whale has for some time been widely accepted as a species separate from its Northern Hemisphere relatives, although Rice (1998) regarded the Right Whales in all oceans as a single species and placed them in the genus Balaena along with B. mysticetus, the Bowhead Whale. Genetic analyses support the concept of three separate phylogenetic species of Right Whale, one in the North Atlantic, one in the North Pacific, and one in the Southern Hemisphere (Rosenbaum et al. 2000). The International Whaling Commission (IWC 2004) and the Society for Marine Mammalogy's Taxonomy Committee (Committee on Taxonomy 2017) accept the latter taxonomy. The ranges of the three Right Whale species do not overlap.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2018
Date Assessed: 2017-12-21
Assessor(s): Cooke, J.G. & Zerbini, A.N.
Reviewer(s): Brownell Jr., R.L., Clapham, P.J., Jackson, J., Reeves, R. & Taylor, B.L.
Contributor(s): Ashe, E.
Facilitator/Compiler(s): Lowry, L.

The current hemispheric population trend for Southern Right Whales is uncertain, in view of the recent evidence for levelling-off in the population growth in some of the major areas (southwest Atlantic and Australia) and the recent steep apparent decline in the southeast Atlantic. However, given the estimated total population size (13,600 individuals in 2009; IWC 2013), and the 5-10 fold increase in the population since the 1970s, the species, although still scarce relative to its historical abundance, is not considered under threat at the hemispheric level. The population size is estimated to be larger now than it was three generations ago (87 years, assuming a generation time of 29 years; Taylor et al. 2007). By IUCN Red List criteria, the species is assessed as Least Concern. Some breeding subpopulations are still very small and may need special protection to survive. The very small population off Chile/Peru has been assessed separately and listed as Critically Endangered.

Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:

Southern Right Whales have a circumpolar distribution in the Southern Hemisphere. The distribution in winter, at least of the breeding component of the population, is concentrated near coastlines in the northern part of the range. Major current breeding areas are off southern Australia, New Zealand (particularly Auckland Islands and Campbell Islands), Atlantic coast of South America (Argentina and Brazil), and southern Africa (South Africa and Namibia). Small numbers are also seen off central Chile, Peru, Tristan da Cunha, and the east coast of Madagascar (Rosenbaum et al. 2001). In summer, Right Whales are found mainly in latitudes 40-50°S (Ohsumi and Kasamatsu 1986) but also occur in the Antarctic as far south as 65°S (Bannister et al. 1999) and around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (Nijs and Rowntree 2017). Movements of individuals between subantarctic waters in summer and winter calving grounds have been documented using photo-identification and satellite tracking (Bannister et al. 1999, Best et al. 1993, Pirzl et al. 2009, Zerbini et al. 2016, Nijs and Rowntree 2017).

The 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:
Antarctica; Argentina; Australia; Bouvet Island; Brazil; Chile; Falkland Islands (Malvinas); French Southern Territories (Kerguelen); Madagascar; Mozambique; Namibia; New Zealand; Peru; Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (Tristan da Cunha); South Africa; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Uruguay
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Atlantic – southwest; Atlantic – southeast; Atlantic – Antarctic; Indian Ocean – western; Indian Ocean – eastern; Indian Ocean – Antarctic; Pacific – southeast; Pacific – southwest
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):No
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):NoEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):NoExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]


Southern Right Whales were hunted extensively by pre-modern whaling starting in the early 17th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th centuries by American and European whalers. Not all records have survived, and there is uncertainty over the numbers of animals killed but not landed. The total number processed between 1770 and 1900 is conservatively estimated at about 150,000, of which 48,000-60,000 were taken in the 1830s alone. By the start of modern whaling at the beginning of the 20th century, the species was already rare, and catches thereafter until Right Whales were legally protected in 1935 totalled only about 1,000. Over 3,000 were taken illegally by Soviet whaling fleets mainly in the 1960s (Tormosov et al. 1998). The hemispheric population in 1770 is estimated to have been over 70,000 and to have been depleted to a low of about 300 animals by the 1920s. The species began to recover following protection in 1935, but the illegal Soviet catches in the 1960s are estimated to have removed over half of the remaining population and delayed recovery (IWC 2001, 2013).

Four breeding populations of Southern Right Whales (southwest Atlantic – Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, southeast Atlantic – South Africa and Namibia; Australia; and southwest Pacific – New Zealand) have shown strong recoveries, with doubling times of 10-12 years (Bannister et al. 2001, 2016; Cooke et al. 2001, 2015; Best et al. 2001, Brandão et al. 2013, Jackson et al. 2016). Two further suspected breeding populations (southeast Pacific – Chile and Peru, and southwest Indian Ocean – Madagascar and Mozambique) remain at very low numbers and show no clear evidence of any increase.

The pan-hemispheric population was estimated to have reached 13,600 animals by 2009 and still to have been increasing strongly (IWC 2013). In recent years there has been evidence of a levelling-off of increase rates in the western South Atlantic (Crespo et al. 2017) and in western Australia (Bannister et al. 2016, IWC 2018). The southeast Atlantic population (South Africa and Namibia) appears to have declined sharply since 2015 for unknown reasons (Findlay et al. 2017).

There can be substantial interchange of Southern Right Whales between breeding grounds off the same continent, for example between Argentina and Brazil (Groch et al. 2005), and some interchange between continents and major land masses, for example between Argentina and South Africa (Best et al. 1993) and Australia and New Zealand (Pirzl et al. 2009). As the populations recover the winter ranges of each population seems to have been expanding to include more of the historical range, for example, Argentina to Brazil (IWC 2013), Auckland Islands and Campbell Islands to mainland New Zealand (Carroll et al. 2014), and South Africa to Namibia (Roux et al. 2015). Recovery within regions has been uneven. The calving numbers in southwestern Australia have increased but they remain low in southeastern Australia despite the latter having been a major calving and whaling ground in the 1800s (IWC 2018).

Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Continuing decline of mature individuals:No
Extreme fluctuations:NoPopulation severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

Southern Right Whales have been well-studied on their wintering grounds, especially at Peninsula Valdés, Argentina, off the southern coast of Australia, and off South Africa. Researchers have used callosity patterns to identify individuals on these grounds, and have learned much about the Southern Right Whale's behaviour and reproduction. Calves are born from June to October with a peak in August after a 12-13 month gestation period (Best 1994). Females usually produce calves at 3-year intervals when these are successfully reared, but the interval can shorten to 2 years following perinatal loss of a calf, which often results in an apparent 5-year interval (Cooke et al. 2001, 2015; Leaper et al. 2006). In recent years off Argentina greater numbers of dead calves and a correspondingly greater number of documented two-year intervals have been observed (Rowntree et al. 2013, Sironi et al. 2016).

Where feeding occurs north of 40°S the diet consists mainly of copepods, south of 50°S mainly euphausiids (krill), and varying proportions of the two food items at intermediate latitudes (Tormosov et al. 1998).  Evidence from stable isotope analysis suggests that different individuals frequent different feeding grounds and that fidelity to feeding grounds is maternally directed (Morgana et al. 2014, Valenzuela et al. 2009).

Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:No
Movement patterns:Full Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

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

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s):

Like their congeners in the Northern Hemisphere, Southern Right Whales can die from entanglement in fishing gear and from ship strikes (IWC 2001). However, this does not seem to have impeded their recovery, at least in the main areas of abundance. The lower average density of human populations, and thus fishing, shipping, and other potentially harmful activities in the Southern Hemisphere, compared with the western North Atlantic, probably makes this species less affected by such activities than is the North Atlantic Right Whale (IWC 2013).

Harassment by Kelp Gulls, Larus dominicanus, that gouge skin and blubber from the whales’ backs, is extensive in the Península Valdés nursery ground (Rowntree et al. 1998). This appears to be learned behaviour that has spread through the growing gull population that increased by 2.7% per year during 1994-2008 (Lisnizer et al. 2011). It is thought that the resulting wounds are a contributory factor in some calf deaths, and a number of mitigation measures have been proposed to reduce the rate of gull attacks on Southern Right Whales (Fazio et al. 2012, Marón et al. 2015)

There has been a marked increase since 2003 in stranded Right Whale carcasses in the two bays (Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San José) on Península Valdés, Argentina, where the whales congregate in the winter and spring. The number of carcasses found averaged 63 per year during 2006-2015, of which about 90% were newborn calves (Rowntree et al. 2013, Sironi et al. 2016). A number of possible factors in the calf deaths have been suggested, including nutritional stress, biotoxin exposure from harmful algal blooms (Wilson et al. 2015), and harassment by from Kelp Gulls (IWC 2016). There has been concern that the level of mortality may be anomalously high (a “die-off”, ) (IWC 2011). However, a long-term analysis of calf mortality rates in this population showed that the rate has remained fairly low over most of the last 40 years, averaging around 18% with some inter-annual fluctuation but with recent levels not being unusually high (Cooke et al. 2015). For most cetacean populations, only a small proportion of dead animals are ever found (Williams et al. 2011), but the geography of the Península Valdéz wintering ground with its two semi-enclosed bays likely facilitates the stranding and discovery of dead calves. This provides a unique opportunity to study the causes of calf mortality.

Observed correlations between breeding success off Argentina and sea surface temperature anomalies at South Georgia suggest that as Antarctic feeding grounds warm up, the average calf survival rate of Southern Right Whales would be expected to decline (Leaper et al. 2006). Off Brazil, reproductive success depends on body condition and therefore foraging success, which in turn are at least partly determined by climate-driven changes in krill density (Seyboth et al. 2016).

The recent decline in Right Whales off South Africa, evident in single animals since 2010 and in cow-calf pairs since 2015, is unexplained (Findlay et al. 2017). No increases in sightings in other areas have been reported that might account for the missing whales. An as yet unidentified factor may threaten this subpopulation.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions:

All Right Whales have been legally protected from commercial hunting since the 1930s, but this has only been fully respected since the early 1970s when the presence of international observers discouraged illegal catching by Soviet fleets, and land stations in South America also stopped taking Right Whales

Protected areas with specific management measures aimed at protecting Right Whales in their nursery grounds include the Right Whale Environmental Protection Area (Area de Proteção Ambiental de Baleia Franca) off Catarina State in Brazil, the Golfo San José Provincial Marine Park (Parque Marino Golfo San José) in Argentina, and the Great Australian Bight Marine Park in South Australia. The IWC has endorsed Conservation Management Plans developed by Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile for the southwest Atlantic population, and by Chile and Peru for the Critically Endangered subpopulation in the eastern South Pacific (see separate listing).

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

Citation: Cooke, J.G. & Zerbini, A.N. 2018. Eubalaena australis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T8153A50354147. . Downloaded on 16 October 2018.
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