The North Atlantic right whale has the unfortunate distinction of being named by the whaling industry because it was the “right whale” to hunt. It was easy to harpoon and it floated after death, while some other species sunk. These characteristics led to this species being hunted to near extinction, and even 65 years after hunting of North Atlantic right whales ceased, it is still struggling to recover.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of three species of right whales (the North Pacific right whale and Southern right whale are the two other species). Like all the great baleen whales, this species can grow quite large. With lengths of up to 50 feet (15 m) and weighing up to 64 metric tonnes (140,000 pounds), the North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest species on earth. Interestingly, though they are enormous, North Atlantic right whales are filter feeders and are not a threat to people. This feeding strategy is common among several large animals in the ocean, including the whale shark, the basking shark, and other great whales. As opposed to other large baleen whales, which gulp water and filter out their prey after contracting their throat muscles and squeezing out the excess water, right whales filter feed by swimming with their mouths open and capturing prey in their specially angled baleen through which the water flows. Their preferred prey consists of mostly pelagic crustaceans, like krill and copepods.
Like all whales, North Atlantic right whales are mammals and give live birth to very large calves that are nursed for about one year. Males do not provide parental care and do not seem to live near the females / young for most of the year. Individuals are known to undergo very long migrations between feeding grounds in sub-polar areas and calving grounds in warm temperate latitudes. Their large size may help North Atlantic right whales (and other migrating animals) survive these epic journeys through waters that may provide relatively little food. During their migrations, North Atlantic right whales often come near shore, so they are particularly vulnerable to strikes by large ships or entanglement in fishing gear.
The massive hunting effort that reduced North Atlantic right whale populations dramatically in the early 1900’s combined with present-day threats of ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, work together to threaten this species’ continued existence. The entire North Atlantic right whale population is teetering on the brink of extinction with an alarmingly accelerated decline in recent years. Approximately 400 individuals remain, and less than a quarter of them are breeding females. Every single death increases the urgency with which we must act if these beautiful animals are to have a future. The smaller this population gets, the more difficult it becomes for it to recover. At some point, if trends continue, recovery will simply be impossible.
The two greatest threats to North Atlantic right whales are entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with ships. In 2019, researchers looked at the causes of 70 North Atlantic right whale deaths recorded between 2003 and 2018 in the U.S. and Canada. Where the cause of death could be determined, nearly 90% died as a direct result of fishing gear entanglements or ship strikes. The U.S. and Canadian governments must act swiftly to halt this catastrophic downturn. If nothing changes, we could see the first large whale go extinct in the Atlantic Ocean in centuries. Protections have worked in the past, but recent deaths make it clear that more needs to be done.
Oceana campaigns in the United States and Canada to reduce threats to North Atlantic right whales, including entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. Learn more about Oceana's campaign to stop the first large whale extinxtion of the century on our North Atlantic right whale campaign page or take action right now using the banner below.
1. North Atlantic right whales grow up to 52 feet (15.8 m) long and weigh up to 140,000 pounds (63.5 metric tons).
2. North Atlantic right whales can live up to 70 years. Researchers use their ear wax to determine their age after they have died.
3. North Atlantic right whales have rough, white patches on their heads known as callosities that are unique to each individual.
4. North Atlantic right whales travel more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km) between calving grounds in the U.S. Southeast and feeding grounds in the U.S. Northeast and Canada.
5. North Atlantic right whales socialize at the water’s surface in what is known as “surface-active groups.” They can also often be seen breaching and slapping their tails and flippers at the surface.1
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.