Skip booklet index and go to page content

Recovery Strategy for the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Atlantic Canadian Waters.

Executive summary

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a large (up to 17 m) whale, generally black in colour with occasional white belly patches and no dorsal fin.  Right whales were once common in temperate waters of the Western Atlantic but were seriously depleted by whaling.  An accurate population estimate for the species is yet to be calculated.  The population of North Atlantic right whales in Atlantic Canadian waters was estimated in 2003 to number about 322 animals; however more recent estimates suggest the current population numbers about 350 animals.  North Atlantic right whales are protected and listed under Schedule 1, Part 2 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

A migratory animal, the North Atlantic right whale travels along the east coast of North America primarily from eastern Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland.  The role of Canada in protecting North Atlantic right whales and promoting their recovery is crucial because a very high proportion of the extant population spends all or part of the summer and autumn months in Canadian waters.  In particular North Atlantic right whales are observed feeding and socializing in the lower Bay of Fundy and in Roseway Basin on the western Scotian Shelf.  The Bay of Fundy has been regularly monitored annually since 1980 by researchers.  North Atlanticright whales feed on a variety of organisms but seem to depend most heavily on the copepod Calanus finmarchicus. 

Since whaling ended the most obvious threats that are potentially depressing the growth rate of the North Atlantic right whale population are strikes by vessels and entanglements in fixed fishing gear.  Most of the areas heavily used by right whales in the western North Atlantic are in or near major shipping lanes serving ports in the eastern United States and Canada.  There are stewardship measures, such as avoiding areas of whale aggregation, that have helped reduce the threat of vessel strikes in Canadian waters.  It has been shown that  the types of fishing gear most often implicated in North Atlantic right whale entanglements are the vertical and horizontal lines used in fixed gear fisheries (i.e. gillnets and pot gear).  Active emergency response and\or disentanglement programs exist in both Canada and the United States, although the program is broader in scope and funding in the United States. Habitat degradation may also be contributing to the North Atlantic right whale population’s failure to recover more rapidly.  The migratory and pelagic habits of the species present a significant challenge to fully implement all recovery strategies.  Recovery of the North Atlantic right whale will require significant international coordination and cooperation to mitigate the negative impacts of human activities across the species’ range.

In February 2007, DFO Science conducted a Recovery Potential Assessment (RPA) for right whales in the western North Atlantic which resulted in Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy being delineated as critical habitat for the species under SARA.  This area has been recognized previously as an important area for North Atlantic right whale aggregation with the designation of the Bay of Fundy Right Whale Conservation Area. Roseway Basin, on the southwestern Scotian Shelf, another important area of North Atlantic right whale aggregation, is also a designated conservation area.  Although insufficient data was available during the RPA to determine whether this area also constitutes critical habitat for the species, initial results from research initiated following the RPA support the conclusion that Roseway Basin meets the criteria as critical habitat for right whales and therefore it has been identified as critical habitat in the recovery strategy. Provisional boundaries have been selected to match the “Area To Be Avoided” (ATBA) designated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO; see section 2.7.1). A schedule of studies is outlined to complete the research activities initiated to refine the boundaries of Roseway Basin critical habitat for right whales.

The lack of firm estimates of historical abundance means that a long-term population target cannot yet be determined. However, current knowledge of the status and trends in this population can be used to develop the interim Recovery Goal: “To achieve an increasing trend in population abundance over three generations”.  To begin to achieve an increasing trend in population abundance of North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters the following recovery objectives and respective strategies will need to be implemented:

  1. Reduce mortality and injury as a result of vessel strikes;
  2. Reduce mortality and injury as a result of fishing gear interactions (entanglement and entrapment);
  3. Reduce injury and disturbance as a result of vessel presence or exposure to contaminants and other forms of habitat degradation;
  4. Monitor population and threats;
  5. Increase understanding of life history characteristics, low reproductive rate, habitat and threats to recovery through research;
  6. Support and promote collaboration for recovery between government agencies, academia, environmental non-government groups, Aboriginal groups, coastal communities and international agencies and bodies;
  7. Develop and implement education and stewardship activities that promote recovery.

There are a number of threat mitigation and research efforts currently underway that contribute to meeting these objectives (see Section 2.7 Actions Completed or Underway). However, there remains a number of gaps in our knowledge about the North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters including in the areas of biology and ecology, habitat requirements, and additional potential threats.  While there has been significant progress in narrowing knowledge gaps in recent years, it is widely accepted that research efforts must continue and increase.  The need for consistent resources and dedicated partners to address knowledge gaps, implement recovery strategies and respond to North Atlantic right whale emergencies is important to the success of the program and an ongoing challenge.  Following the adoption of this recovery strategy under SARA, action plans for the North Atlantic right whale will be developed.  Completion of the evaluation of Roseway Basin critical habitat in order to refine its boundaries will be a high priority to address in an action plan following the finalization of this Recovery Strategy.  Addressing potential interactions with fishing gear has also been identified as a high priority for action planning.