Policy ForumEcology

North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  22 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5734, pp. 561-562
DOI: 10.1126/science.1111200

Despite international protection from commercial whaling since 1935, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) [HN1] remains one of the most endangered whales in the world (1). Whaling for almost 1000 years brought this species close to extinction in the early 20th century (2). [HN2]Right whales range in the coastal waters of eastern North America from Florida to the Canadian Maritimes, regions that are heavily used by the shipping and fishing industries and by the military. A low reproductive rate and recently declining survival probabilities (1, 3), [HN3] particularly for breeding females (4), appear to have prevented this population from recovering over the last 25 years (5). Most right whale mortalities [HN4] are due to collisions with ships [HN5] and entanglements in fishing gear [HN6] (5). The right whale population growth rate has declined since 1980, and the total population now appears to be diminishing in size (4). This is in stark contrast to southern hemisphere right whales (Eubalaena australis) [HN7], whose population is estimated to be over 10,000 animals and appears to be increasing at 7.2% per year (6).

Recent mortalities demonstrate the serious problem facing the North Atlantic right whale. In the past 16 months, there have been eight recorded deaths, including six adult females (three were carrying near-term fetuses). Four of these whales were killed by human activities (three by ships and one by fishing gear), a fifth whale was probably killed by a ship, two whales were offshore and could not be retrieved for examination, and a young calf died on the beach in Florida. The loss of this number of whales, and particularly this number of reproductive females, in such a short period, is unprecedented in 25 years of study of this species (7). Four of these females were just starting to bear calves, and since the average lifetime calf production is 5.25 calves (4), the deaths of these females represent a lost reproductive potential of as many as 21 animals.

The most recently published estimates of right whale survival (4, 8) suggest that the mortality rate increased between 1980 and 1998 to a level of 4 (±1%). From recent population estimates of 350 right whales (1), a 4% mortality rate implies 14 animals dying per year. In the last 20 years, an average of 2.4 dead whales has been reported each year, representing a detection rate of 17%. The eight deaths reported in the last 16 months is 2.9 times the average annual rate. Calculations based on demographic data through 1999 (4) show that this increase in mortality would reduce population growth by 3.5 to 12% per year. (The range reflects different choices in the details of model selection; the best model implies a reduction in population growth rate of 10% per year.) This dramatic increase in reported deaths may be partly due to improved sighting efforts and reporting awareness but is not a natural variation in mortality. If the 17% mortality detection rate from the last 20 years has remained constant, as many as 47 right whales could have died in the last 16 months.

Of the 50 dead right whales reported since 1986, at least 19 were killed by vessel collisions, and at least six were killed by fishing gear entanglements (7). Also during this period, there were 61 confirmed cases of whales carrying fishing gear, including the mortalities. Outcomes of the remaining cases and the fate of individual whales varied. Death is suspected in 12 cases, because of an animal's subsequent disappearance and/or the extremely poor health condition observed at the time of last sighting. Another eight animals are still entangled; their fate is uncertain. Thirty-three animals either shed the gear or were disentangled, and the remaining cases involved unidentifiable individuals. Chronically entangled whales lose weight, so they sink after death, unlike healthy animals that float if killed. Thus, right whale mortality from fishing gear is probably underestimated to a greater degree than ship kills (5).

Calf production has increased recently, raising doubts in some quarters about the urgency of the mortality problem. Annual calf production averaged 12 calves up until 2000 (1), but totaled 31, 21, 19, 16, and 28 in 2001 to 2005, respectively. However, the increase in the birth rate will have a small positive impact on population growth rate, as a hypothetical doubling of the per capita birth rate would increase population growth rate by at most 1.6% per year. The population is estimated to have been declining at about 2% per year before 2000 (3, 4, 8). Thus, the effects of recent increases in birth rate are too small to overcome this decline.

Federal managers in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries are charged by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act [HN8] to ensure that there is no human-induced mortality of right whales. There have been efforts to minimize the risk of ship strikes with mandatory ship location reporting, extensive aerial survey efforts, and mariner education. But without requiring changes in the operation of ships within right whale habitats and migratory corridors, this increased awareness has not led to a reduction in ship strike mortalities. The risk of fishing gear entanglement has been addressed by selective area closures and gear modifications (9). These closures do not adequately encompass the seasonal movements of right whales, and gear modifications implemented thus far have not reduced entanglement rates. Eight dead right whales in the past 16 months provide clear evidence that management efforts have been woefully inadequate, and much stronger measures are needed to reverse the right whale's decline.

Accordingly, we urge immediate changes to the management of right whales, focusing on reducing human-induced mortality. Some of the following recommendations will also benefit other marine species that face similar threats, such as the endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) (10) [HN9]. First, emergency measures should be implemented to reduce speeds and reroute commercial and military ships as recommended in the NOAA Fisheries Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule-Making [HN10] (11). Second, the amount of fixed fishing gear in the water column should be eliminated or minimized. There are many steps that could be taken to do this, including (i) mandating changes in the pot-fishing industry (lobster, crab, hagfish, etc.) that will reduce gear in the water; (ii) requiring use of alternative rope types (e.g., sinking ground lines) to minimize entanglement deaths; (iii) developing and implementing fishing methods that do not use vertical lines attached to surface buoys; and (iv) developing a fast-track process for permitting and experimenting with conservation-focused fishing gear modifications and implementation. This means streamlining the current rule-making and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) [HN11] process for right whale research and gear modifications, which now takes years.

Given the slow speed of the regulatory process, interim emergency measures to reduce shipping and fishing mortality in right whales should be implemented immediately. Delays in implementation would be ignoring both scientific and legal mandates and could consign North Atlantic right whales to extinction.

HyperNotes Related Resources on the World Wide Web

General Hypernotes

Dictionaries and Glossaries

A glossary of ecology terms is provided by the companion Web site for Essentials of Ecology by C. Townsend, M. Begon, and J. Harper.

A glossary is provided by the Animal Diversity Web of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

A glossary is provided by the Cetacea Web site.

Web Collections, References, and Resource Lists

The National Biological Information Infrastructure includes a section of resources and links on biodiversity.

EE-Link, a resource for environmental education Internet sources, has a page devoted to endangered species and offers a collection of Internet links on wildlife conservation.

J. Levinton's Marine Biology Web offers a collection of marine biology Internet links.

The Yahoo Directory includes collections of Internet resources on whales and whale conservation and research.

A collection of Internet links related to endangered species and conservation is provided by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) on its Red List Web site.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society maintains a collection of Internet links.

Online Texts and Lecture Notes

NatureServe is a network connecting science and conservation. NatureServe Explorer is an online encyclopedia of species information with in-depth coverage for rare and endangered species. A report on Eubalaena glacialis (North Atlantic right whale) is included.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mains a resource page on whales. The Office of Protected Resources of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is the lead Federal office in protecting marine mammals and endangered marine life. NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center provides information on right whale sightings.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium consists of a number of both non-governmental and governmental organizations and individuals in the United States and Canada who work to study and conserve North Atlantic right whales.

WhaleNet is maintained by J. M. Williamson, Wheelock College, Boston. A section on right whale data and maps is included.

Whales online is a reference and news site dedicated to education for the conservation of whales and their natural habitat. It has a section on the North Atlantic right whale with a collection of news articles.

The Ocean Life Institute of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) provides a resource page on right whales.

NOAA's Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary offers an educational presentation on the northern right whale.

Biodiversity and Conservation is a hypertext book by P. Bryant, School of Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine. A section on whaling is included.

J. D. Allen, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, offers lectures notes for a course on conserving biological diversity.

D. Eernisse, Department of Biological Sciences, California State University, Fullerton, provides lecture notes for a marine biology course.

General Reports and Articles

The 28 January 2005 issue of Science had a Policy Forum by L. R. Gerber, K. D. Hyrenbach, and M. A. Zacharias titled “Do the largest protected areas conserve whales or whalers?”

Columbia University's Fathom Archive makes available a 2002 article by T. Crago titled “On the edge of extinction.”

WHOI's Oceanus makes available a 3 November 2004 article by M. Moore titled “Whither the North Atlantic right whale?”

The NOAA Fisheries Service makes available in PDF format the 2004 revision of the Recovery Plan for the North Atlantic Right Whale.

The IUCN makes available in PDF format the 2003 Species Survival Commission report titled Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World's Cetaceans.

WHOI's Ocean Life Institute makes available the presentations from a November 2003 forum on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The issues of Right Whale News are made available on the Web by NOAA's Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium makes available in PDF format an October 1990 article by S. D. Kraus titled “Rates and potential causes of mortality in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis)” and other papers.

NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Fisheries Science Center offers an article on the history of marine mammal research in the Northeast USA.

The International Whaling Commission publishes the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management. The contents list, introduction, and PDF abstracts of the September 2001 special issue on right whales are available on the Web.

Numbered Hypernotes

1. North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Wikipedia has an article on right whales. The Smithsonian's North American Mammals Web site provides an introduction to the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Fisheries and Oceans Canada offers an introduction to the North Atlantic right whale. The American Cetacean Society provides a fact sheet on the right whale. WWF offers a presentation on the North Atlantic right whale. ARKive offers an illustrated presentation on the northern right whale. The Ocean Conservancy offers a PDF presentation on the North Atlantic right whale. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society offers a presentation on the northern right whale. The Canada's Aquatic Environments Web site has a section on the northern right whale. P. Massicot's Animal Info Web site provides information on the North Atlantic right whale.

2. History of Atlantic whaling. Wikipedia includes articles on whaling and the history of whaling. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society provides an introduction to the history of whaling. A whaling history is provided by the Húsavík Whale Museum, Iceland. The Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum offers an overview of American whaling. FindArticles makes available a 1999 Marine Fisheries Review article by R. R. Reeves, J. M. Breiwick, and E. D. Mitchell titled “History of whaling and estimated kill of right whales, Balaena glacialis, in the Northeastern United States, 1620-1924—Statistical data included.” WWF offers a presentation titled “The history of whaling and the International Whaling Commission.”

3. Right whale reproduction and survival. The Pelagic GIS Group at the New England Aquarium's Edgerton Research Lab makes available in PDF format a 2001 article by Scott D. Kraus et al. titled “Reproductive parameters of the North Atlantic right whale” (1). BBC News makes available a 28 November 2001 article titled “Right whales need extra protection” about the 29 November 2001 Nature article by M. Fujiwara and H. Caswell titled “Demography of the endangered North American right whale” (4). WHOI issued a news release about the study titled “Endangered North Atlantic right whale study shows sharp decline in mothers.” NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center makes available a 2000 workshop report titled Causes of Reproductive Failure in North Atlantic Right Whales: New Avenues of Research. The 16 March 1999 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences had an article by Hal Caswell, M. Fujiwara, and S. Brault titled “Declining survival probability threatens the North Atlantic right whale” (3).

4. Right whale mortality. The Pelagic GIS Group at the New England Aquarium's Edgerton Research Lab makes available in PDF format a 2001 article by A. R. Knowlton and S. D. Kraus titled “Mortality and serious injury of northern right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the western North Atlantic Ocean” (5). M. J. Moore, Biology Department, WHOI, makes available in PDF format a 2005 article by M. J. Moore et al. titled “Morphometry, gross morphology and available histopathology in North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) mortalities (1970-2002)” (7).

5. Collisions between ships and whales. The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management makes available a 2003 article by J. Pelczarski titled “Fatal interaction: Right whales and ships.” NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources makes available a resource page titled “North Atlantic right whales: Mandatory ship reporting system” and background information on North Atlantic right whales and ship strikes off the U.S. East Coast. NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Region Office provides a resource page on right whale ship strike reduction and makes available in PDF format a January 2001 article by D. W. Laist et al. titled “Collisions between ships and whales.” The Humane Society of the United States makes available a 19 May 2005 article by T. Mulford titled “Collision course: Coalition calls on government to curb right whale deaths.”

6. Entanglement of whales in fishing gear. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies provides information about whale entanglements and rescue; a FAQ and disentanglement accounts are included. NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Region Protected Resources Division provides a resource page on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce entanglement in fishing gear; a report on large whale entanglement and a report of a 2003 disentanglement workshop are provided in PDF format. The Ocean Conservancy makes available a Fall 2004 article by W. Woodwell titled “The right stuff” about right whale entanglement. The Right Whale Conservation Program of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries makes available in PDF format a presentation titled “A study of the underwater profiles of lobster trawl ground lines” and a 2005 report by E. G. Lyman and D. J. McKiernan titled “Scale modeling of fixed-fishing gear to compare and quantify differently configured buoyline and groundline profiles: An investigation of entanglement threat.”

7. Southern Hemisphere right whale (Eubalaena australis). Animal Diversity Web includes an entry on Eubalaena australis (southern right whale). ARKive offers information on Eubalaena australis. The Department for Environment and Heritage of the Australian government provides a species profile of Eubalaena australis. The South Australia Department for Environment and Heritage offers a presentation on the southern right whale.

8. Resource pages on the Endangered Species Act and the National Marine Mammal Protection Act are provided by NOAA Fisheries.

9. Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Endangered! Exploring a World at Risk, an online exhibit by the American Museum of Natural History, has a presentation on the leatherback sea turtle. The Endangered Species Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a resource page on Dermochelys coriacea. NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Resources provides information on the leatherback sea turtle. NatureServe Explorer provides information on Dermochelys coriacea. Fisheries and Oceans Canada offers a presentation on the leatherback turtle. R. A. Myers, Department of Biological Sciences, Dalhousie University, makes available in PDF format a February 2005 Ecology Letters article by M. C. James, C. A. Ottensmeyer, and R. A. Myers titled “Identification of high-use habitat and threats to leatherback sea turtles in northern waters: New directions for conservation” (10).

10. NOAA Fisheries Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule-making. NOAA Fisheries provides a resource page on the proposed ship strike reduction strategy and makes available in PDF format a 1 June 2004 press release titled “New strategy proposed to reduce ship collisions with endangered North Atlantic right whales” and the Federal Register entry titled “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) for Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction” (11). The Ship Strike Reduction Web site of NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Office makes available a PDF presentation on the proposed strategy to reduce ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales, as well as other background information.

11. NEPA. The Council on Environmental Quality's NEPAnet provides the text of the National Environmental Policy Act, information on implementing regulations, and links to NEPA resources.

12. Scott D. Kraus, Moira W. Brown, Philip K. Hamilton, Amy R. Knowlton, and Rosalind M. Rolland are at the Edgerton Research Laboratory, New England Aquarium, Boston. Hal Caswell and Michael J. Moore are in the Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA. Christopher W. Clark is at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Masami Fujiwara is in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara. Robert D. Kenney is in the Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett. Scott Landry and Charles A. Mayo are at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA. William A. McLellan and D. Ann Pabst are in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina Wilmington. Douglas P. Nowacek is in the Department of Oceanography, Florida State University, Tallahassee. Andrew J. Read is at the Marine Laboratory, Duke University, Beaufort, NC.

References and Notes

View Abstract

Navigate This Article