Endangered Right Whales: Humans, Threats, Ships and Gulls

Home | Category: Baleen Whales (Blue, Humpback and Right Whales)


20120522-Whaling Walfang_zwischen_1856_und 1907.jpg Whaling reduced the number of right whales from around 100,000 in the 17th century to around 11,000 today. Right whales were slow in recovering from heavy whaling in the 19th century. In recent years they have been doing better. Whaling is no longer a threat, but human interactions still present the greatest danger to this species. The leading causes of known mortality for North Atlantic right whales are entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes. [Source: NOAA]

There are only around 400, maybe less, North Atlantic right whales (See Below). There are an estimated 100 to 600 North Pacific right whales (2008) down from around 10,000 in the 1600s. North Pacific right whales were harpooned illegally as late as the 1960s by Soviet whalers.

There are an estimated 10,000 Southern Atlantic right whales (2008) down from around 55,000 to 75,000 in the 1600s. The population is increasing at a rate of about 7 percent a year, that is close to the maximum possible for a species with a one year gestation period. Not only are they reproducing these whales are strong and healthy and show few of the signs of wear and tear that their northern cousins do.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Threats to Right Whales

Threats to right whales include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, ocean noise, climate and ecosystem change, disturbance from whale watching activities, small population size and lack of food. Since they tend to rest and feed at the surface collisions with boats are always a risk. Pollution, and disruptions caused by military exercises are also concerns. Being surface feeders also puts them at risk to pollution. An oil refinery in the Bay of Fundy is very near the feeding grounds of North Atlantic right whales.

Entanglement in fishing lines attached to gillnets and traps on the ocean floor is one of the greatest threats to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Floating lines between traps are particularly dangerous, since they can form loops that a whale can be caught in. Becoming entangled in fishing gear can severely stress and injure a whale, and lead to a painful death. Reports suggest that over 85 percent of right whales have entanglement scars. [Source: NOAA]

Vessel Strikes are a major threat to North Atlantic right whales. Their habitat and migration routes are close to major ports along the Atlantic seaboard and often overlap with shipping lanes, making the whales vulnerable to collisions with ships.

Ocean Noise: Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of right whales and interferes with their communication.

20120522-right whaleMoira_Brown_-_MWB_0195-NEA-S4.jpg Biotoxins from Harmful Algal Blooms: have been documented in North Atlantic and southern right whales and identified as a threat to both populations. It has been suggested that effects from HABs could heighten the whales’ susceptibility to both ship strikes and entanglements. There is concern about the emerging prevalence of algal toxins in habitat used by North Pacific right whales. Due to lack of access to the species, algal toxins have not been found in North Pacific right whales; however, they have been documented in bowhead whale carcasses in the Arctic, which can be used as a proxy for right whales. Domoic acid and saxitoxin was present in 68 percent and 32 percent, respectively, of bowhead whale carcasess examined from the Arctic, the highest prevalence of the 13 species examined in a study looking at harmful algal blooms in Arctic marine mammals.

Climate Change: The impacts of climate change on baleen whales are unknown, but it is considered one of the largest threats facing remote habitat in the North Pacific. Most notably, the timing and distribution of zooplankton prey is largely governed by sea ice coverage and could change dramatically with altered oceanographic conditions. Changes in zooplankton distribution could lead to nutritional stress and diminished reproduction for North Pacific right whales. Additionally, changing water temperature and currents could impact the timing of environmental cues important for navigation and migration, and the location of critical habitat within the North Pacific right whale range. Changes in ice extent, density, and persistence could alter the dynamics of the Bering Sea shelf zooplankton community, and in turn, affect the foraging behavior and success of right whales.

Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales

North Atlantic right whales (Scientific name: Eubalaena glacialis) make up one of the world’s most endangered large whale species There are an estimated 350 to 400 North Atlantic right whales (2008) down from around 10,000 in the 1600s, but up from around 100 in the 1930s, with the most important segment of the population being the hundred or so fertile females.

North Atlantic right whales have been listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife) since 1970. The are classified as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. These whales are protected and listed as depleted throughout their range under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA):

The North Atlantic right whale population is very small and, consequently, its status can change quickly. According to the most recent North Atlantic right whale stock assessment report the western North Atlantic right whale population numbered at least 440 individuals as of 2012. [Source: NOAA]

Associated Press reported in 2021: “There are fewer than 400 north Atlantic right whales remaining, Ocean vessels and fishing operations — as well as disease — have taken a toll on the whale's numbers. Between 2017 and 2020, the animals experiencing what biologists call an “unusual mortality event.” In those years, at least 33 dead and 13 seriously injured whales have been found — accounting for more than a tenth of the remaining population. In January 2021, conservation groups sued the federal government to force it to further accelerate action on proposals meant to protect the whales. [Source: Bobby CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press, February 14, 2021]

North Atlantic Right Whales and Ship Collisions

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dead right whale
Today North Atlantic right whales are threatened most by collisions with ships, wounds from propellers and entanglement in fishing lines. Around two to six are killed every year in collisions with seagoing ships. One was was once killed in a collision with a 40-foot pleasure boat off the coast of Georgia in the United States. Another was rescued off the South Carolina coast after becoming entangled in a fishing net. Others simply disappear.

Although right whales can detect distant objects with their sonar they have a hard time locating ships because of all the noise made by ship engines. Autopsies of dead right whales have revealed crushed tissues and trauma of such to a high degree it likely the wounds were caused by collisions with huge cargo carriers. Three quarters of North Atlantic right whales have scars from encounters with fishing gear, which is made of strong materials that can cut deeply into the whale’s skin.

Northern right whale migration routes off the east coast of the United States pass through some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Marilyn Marx of the New England Aquarium told the Washington Post, “It’s an incredible gauntlet that they have to run. When you look at the migratory paths of right whales and you see how many shipping channels they have to cross, it’s amazing that many of them are alive today.” On top of that North Atlantic right whale also have to contend with pollution spilling in from dirty rivers and communications-disrupting noises generated by propellers, sonar and other noises from cargo ships and fishing vessels.

One tough North Atlantic female named Calvin managed to survive after losing her mother to a ship collision when she was eight months old and getting badly entangled in fishing gear when she was eight. When she got caught in the fishing gear researchers managed to remove some of the gear but not all of it. There were worries that remnants would do her in by slowing her down enough so that she couldn’t feed or dive. When she showed a couple years later free of the nets and appeared a couple years after that with a calf, scientists were delighted.

During the 1980s about 12 North Atlantic right whale calves were born each year. The total twice fell sharply in the 1990s until just one calf appeared in 2000. Since then there has been about 20 a year. This is clearly an improvement but is still 30 percent below the whale’s rate of reproduction.

Endangered North Pacific Right Whales

North Pacific right whales are classified as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife) since 1970. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects them but lists them as depleted throughout their range.

20120522-right whaleOrange_whale_lice_right_whale.jpg
Orange whale lice
Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA): Depleted throughout ts range. There are no reliable estimates of current abundance or trends for right whales in the North Pacific. The North Pacific right whale population is very small, likely in the low 100s, and most sightings have been of single whales, though small groups have been sighted. [Source: NOAA]

North Pacific right whales were previously common in the north Pacific but were aggressively pursued by whalers throughout the 19th century. Japanese whaling of this species began in the late 1500s and whaling by Americans and Europeans began in the 1800s. As many as 37,000 north Pacific right whales were killed in a 70 year period from 1839 to 1909, leaving populations at a fraction of their previous levels. Right whales became protected by international agreement in 1935 and by law in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission. Illegal hunting continued through the 1960s, during which time Soviet whaling ships took almost the entire remaining population of eastern Pacific right whales (372 individuals), leaving the population at an estimated 50 individuals. [Source: Ariana Grasgreen, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Southern Right Whales Attacked by Gulls

Gulls have become a real issue with Southern right whales in one of their prime birthing grounds in Argentina — a protected gulf near Puerto Piramides, and the Patagonian city of Puerto Madryn. Biologist Marcelo Bertellotti said seagulls are booming in number and attack whales as they surface for air, pecking and tearing at their flesh to eat their skin and blubber. Bertolotti told Clarín that the seagulls attack whales for about a quarter of the time they spend near the surface of the water, which has caused the massive aquatic mammals to spend less time above water. [Source: Fox News, December 18, 2016]

Such attacks have been observed for a long time. Herman Melville wrote in the 1800s, "Sea fowls are pecking at the small crabs shell-fish, and other sea candies and maccaroni, which the Right whale carries on his pestilent back." Kelp gulls in particular are known for attacking right whales. They peck through the whales' skin and feed on their blubber. Most vulnerable are females that rest on the surface to conserve energy during the calving season. The whales hate it.

Associated Press reported: “what was bizarre animal behavior in the early 2000s has now become a real hazard for threatened Southern right whales in one of their prime birthing grounds, turning whale-watching from a magical experience to something from a horror movie. Seagulls off the coast of the Patagonian city of Puerto Madryn have discovered that by pecking at the whales as they come up for air, they can create open wounds. Then, each time the whales surface, it's dinner time: Gulls swoop down and dig in, cutting away skin and blubber with their beaks and claws. [Source: Associated Press Aug 29, 2012]

"It's not just that the gulls are attacking the whales, but that they're feeding from them, and this way of feeding is a habit that is growing and becoming more frequent," said Bertellotti, who works for the National Patagonia Center, a government-sponsored conservation agency. "It really worries us because the damage they're doing to the whales is multiplying, especially to infant whales that are born in these waters." Whales also are changing their behavior in response: Instead of breaching the water and dramatically displaying their tails, they rise just barely enough to breathe through their blow-holes before descending to safety, Bertellotti said.

Gull attacks were rare until about 2004, said Milko Schvartzman, who coordinates the oceans campaign for Greenpeace in Latin America. But more gulls have caught on, and the population has boomed to the point where whales are attacked at least every fourth time they surface, he said. "Harassment has reached alarmingly high levels," one scientists working in Argentina told National Geographic in the early 2000s. The numbers of gulls have increased with the human population and pass the whale-pecking behavior from one generation of the next.

Police in Argentina Shoot Seagulls to Save Whales

In December 2016, police in the Argentine province of Chubut announced they had created a program to shoot seagulls in order to stop the birds from pecking at right whales. Fox News reported: Police riding aboard motorboats will selectively fire specifically at the seagulls who attack the whales, according to the Argentine newspaper Clarín. It's not clear what kind of ammunition police will use. It's possible police may fire upon the predatory birds with rubber bullets, Clarín reports. Whales bring tourists and tourists bring money, so provincial authorities are planning to have police shoot the gulls. The plan has drawn opposition from some members of Chubut's provincial legislature, according to Clarín. Environmentalists are crying foul, saying officials should instead close a nearby garbage dump and stop fishermen from dumping scraps to reduce the gulls' numbers.

Bertellotti developed a plan to shoot the gulls that display whale-attacking behavior with air rifles and hunting guns, and recover each downed bird before they are eaten along with the ammunition, causing still more damage to marine life. His "100-day Whale-Gull Action Plan" was approved by the government of Chubut, and provincial officials came in defense of it. "We are preparing a pilot plan that seeks to stop the damage from the gulls that pick at the flesh of the whales, because this is putting at risk the resource. It will be a minimal intervention to protect the life of the Southern right whale and thus provide a response to the complaints of the sightseeing businesses that operate in the place," Gov. Martin Buzzi posted on his Facebook page in 2012. [Source: Associated Press August 29, 2012]

Associated Press reported: Whale-watching is big business for Chubut. Environmentalists say the only way to effectively reduce the seagull population is to deny the birds food by closing open-air garbage dumps around the gulf and stopping fishermen and a nearby seafood packing plant from dumping scraps into the water. Activists have been lobbying Chubut for many years to develop plans to reduce, recycle and properly contain garbage, but politicians have resisted, Schvartzman said. Chubut's environmental minister, Eduardo Maza, blamed the problem on previous governments, and said the province is now working on permanent solutions. Shooting the gulls "is surely not the most pleasant measure, but it's necessary to do something to control a situation that has been growing after many years of inaction," Maza said. "At year's end, we're going to inaugurate garbage-separation plants," Maza said. "All the garbage in the protected Peninsula Valdes area that isn't recyclable will be properly disposed of, which will enable us to mitigate the open-air garbage dumps." Schvartzman said that if humans don't solve the problem quickly, the whales will simply stop coming.

Helping and Protecting Right Whales

NOAA is taking steps to promote the recovery of right whales. These include regulations to maintain a safe distance; vessel speed limits in important areas, like calving grounds; and fishing gear regulations designed to prevent entanglement. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is also engaged in talks with Canadian officials to protect right whales along their entire Atlantic coast habitat. NOAA Fisheries and its partners are dedicated to conserving and rebuilding the North Atlantic right whale population. They use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and rescue these endangered whales. NOAA engages its partners to develop regulations and management plans that foster healthy fisheries and reduce the risk of entanglements, create whale-safe shipping practices, and reduce ocean noise. [Source: NOAA]

Scientists say preventing the deaths of two adult North Atlantic right whale females a year could make the difference between the species survival and its its demise. One of the best ways to help North Atlantic right whales is to move shipping lanes and fishing operations out of the areas where they feed and give birth. Also reducing the speed of ships to 10 knots where whales are active helps a lot.

Some efforts have been made to move and reduce the width of shipping lanes to reduce the chance of collisions with whales. In December 2006, the London-based International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, moved a shipping lane off Massachusetts 16 kilometers northward and narrowed it by 1.6 kilometer to reduce collisions with whales The move, scientists say, will reduce strikes with right whales by 61 percent and with large baleen whales by as much as 81 percent. In 2003, shipping lanes were moved off Canada’s Bay of Fundy for the same reason. In places where shipping lanes overlap with whale migrations routes oceanic ships have been advised to reduce their sped to 10 knots.

North Atlantic right whales, fin whales and humpback migrate not far from New York City. There smart buoys located offshore in shipping lanes record whale calls and transmit the data to a bioacoustic research team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The buoys help alert ship captains to the presence of whales, decreasing the chances of ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

how right whales get entangled in trap lines

Helping this process along is an army of volunteers that watch for whale movement from boats and roof tops. If they see something the volunteers can quickly phone in data via a hotline to a central warning system, which transmits the data to military and commercial mariners. When operators of large commercial vessels enter an area of a recent sighting there are advised to slow down. The program has some problems. In recent years research and conservation groups have lost both federal and local funding.

The southern right whale has made a particularly strong come back. A century ago there were only a few hundred of them. The Auckland Island marine reserves, an area 300 miles south of New Zealand’s South island, alone is home to more than 1,000 southern right whales. These whales are very healthy and bigger than North Atlantic right whales. They show great curiosity when ever human visitors show up.

Comeback of Southern Right Whales

Southern right whales are classified as Critically Endangered; on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are protected Status and listed as Endangered throughout their range in Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife). The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects them and describes them as depleted throughout their range. Threats include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, habitat impacts, chemical pollution and noise.

Despite all this southern right whales are fairing much better than the other right whale species. Associated Press reported in 2000.: With a noisy spurt of water and air the head of the giant creature emerges from the ocean before gracefully sinking back below the surface to gasps from the boat-borne spectators just meters away. The Southern Right whale, gentle giant of the depths, is making a steady comeback from the edge of oblivion to which it was hunted as recently as the 1960s. It is now packing in the foreign and local tourists."We estimate there are about 2 000 to 2 500 who visit our coastline each year, making ours the biggest population in the world along with Argentina," South African whale expert Peter Best said in Gansbaai, 150 kilometers east of Cape Town. [Source: Jeremy Lovell, Reuters, December 14, 2000]

It is a far cry from the 1940s when the American and British whalers who had plundered the southern oceans for more than a century had reduced the Southern Right population off the coast of South Africa to between 100 and 200 animals. Two decades of recovery followed, but were brought to an abrupt end by Russian whaling ships with quotas to fill hungry mouths to feed back home in the Cold War Soviet Union. Figures recently released by Moscow show that the Russian whalers slaughtered more than 3 000 Southern Rights during the 1960s, Best said.

20120522-right whaleSouthern_right_whale6.jpg
southern right whale

But now the population is well on the way to recovery, with no natural predators to worry about and the arch enemy — mankind — banned from whaling and only very recently even allowed to approach the huge mammals. Best said: "We really know very little about our Right whales. We can guess how long they live and how heavy they are, but we don't even know exactly where they go on their annual migration when they leave here. We know our population is growing at about seven percent a year, that a cow will probably have her first calf at the age of eight and have an average of one every three years from then until she dies,. Data suggests they migrate south from here in our summer to the Roaring Forties and down to the Antarctic. But we don't know for sure," he said.

In stark contrast to the dwindling and increasingly infertile and unhealthy population of northern hemisphere Right whales,the Southern Rights have a broad gene pool and a clean bill of health. They are also remarkably faithful to South Africa. "Just about every female calf born here comes back to have her own calf," Best said, adding that each animal had unique lumps and marks on its head that made it easily distinguishable from all the others. "They are highly recognisable from their warts. I have 550 adult females photographed and catalogued," Best said each cow had her single calf in shallow coastal waters and the pair stayed together for between six months and a year. The males, known as bulls, seem to spend all their time frolicking sexually and seemingly indiscriminately,

Studying Right Whales

The size of whales is determined by taking aerial photographs of them next a small boat (if the size of boat is known the length of the whale can be figured out). To determine how the whales communicate scientists use a dish and tape recorder to record the whale's noise and then attempt to correlate these noises with the whale's actions and behavior.┴

A research team from Boston’s New England Aquarium spends the summer at a station in Lubec, Maine studying the whales that gather to feed and socialize in the bay of Fundy and the nearby Roseway Basin, off Nova Scotia. The team has put together a catalogue of around 390,000 phonographs and can recognize nearly every whale (359 as of 2008) by the unique callous patterns on its head. The health of the whales is gauged by measuring the thickness of the whale’s blubber with ultrasound, a tricky operation.

The team’s greatest asset is perhaps Fargo, the world’s premier whale-poop-sniffing dog. This amazing rottweiler can pick up the scent of whale feces a kilometer and a half away and then direct a boat to the site of a large clump of the stuff using twitches of its tail. Not only do feces give clues about what the whales are eating they also yield DNA information about the individual whales that produced it, their age, reproductive status, levels of stress and presence of parasites..

In South Africa, right whales are shot with darts that scoop up skin and blubber. The samples are sent of the United States for DNA analysis. The darts are shot by researchers sitting on raft with a platforms that resembles a lifeguard chair.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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