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

1. Background 

1.1 Status

1.1.1 Canadian 

Species Assessment Information from COSEWIC

Common name: North Atlantic Right Whale

Scientific name: Eubalaena glacialis

Last Examination and Change: May 2003

Status : Endangered

Canadian Occurrence: Atlantic Ocean

Reason for Designation: The species, found only in the North Atlantic, was heavily reduced by whaling. The total population currently numbers about 322 animals (about 220-240 mature animals), has been decreasing during the last decade (1990s), and is experiencing high mortality from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. A sophisticated demographic model gives an estimated mean time to extinction of 208 years.

Status History: The right whale was considered a single species and designated Endangered in 1980. Status re-examined and confirmed in April 1985 and in April 1990. Split into two species in May 2003 to allow a separate designation of the North Atlantic right whale. North Atlantic right whale was designated Endangered in May 2003. Last assessment based on an updated status report. 

1.1.2 Global

 Status in the United States (U.S.)

In U.S. waters, the North Atlantic right whale (originally jointly listed with the North Pacific right whale as ‘northern’ right whale) was first protected in June 1970 by the Endangered Species Conservation Act, which was the precursor to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The species was subsequently listed as ‘endangered’ under the ESA since its passage in 1973.  In the same year, the species was designated as endangered and ‘depleted’ under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Mandated under the ESA, in 1991 the U.S. Department of Commerce published a Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale (including both the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whale), which reviewed knowledge about natural history and human impacts, along with an outline of steps needed to reduce the risks of extinction and enhance the prospects of population recovery (NMFS 1991). The NMFS revised the 1991 plan and developed a separate recovery plan for the North Atlantic right whale population in 2005 (NMFS 2005). Under the ESA and MMPA, the NMFS produces annual stock assessments, which include for each stock the allowable “potential biological removal” (PBR) level. The current PBR for the North Atlantic right whale population is zero whales per year. 

Under U.S. law, “critical habitat” of endangered species must be designated and given special protection. Three areas were officially designated in 1994 as “critical habitat” under the ESA for the North Atlantic right whale population: Great South Channel and Cape Cod Bay (both in the southern Gulf of Maine) and the nearshore calving ground off northern Florida and Georgia (Figure 1).

International status

All right whales have been protected from commercial whaling since 1935, and further protected under the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1949. 

Globally, the right whale was listed as endangered and receives protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  For countries that are signatories to the Convention, including Canada, CITES is an international agreement to ensure that trade in products derived from wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  Right whales were listed as ‘endangered’ by CITES in 1975 in Appendix 1, which consists of species threatened with extinction; trade of such species is only permitted under exceptional circumstances.

1.2 Disribution

1.2.1 Global Range

  The known historical range of right whales, based on whaling records, included a large area of the eastern seaboard of North America. This area extended from northern Florida along the coast to the waters of Atlantic Canada (Figure 1), east to southern Greenland, Iceland, and Norway, and south along the European coast to northwestern Africa (IWC 1986, Mead 1986, Mitchell et al. 1986, Reeves and Mitchell 1986).

Since the 1920s, sightings in the eastern North Atlantic have been sporadic (e.g., in the Canaries, Madeira, Spain, Portugal, United Kingdom, Iceland, and Norway), (Brown 1986, Martin and Walker 1997).  In the western North Atlantic, right whales once occurred from Florida to Labrador, including the Strait of Belle Isle and Gulf of St. Lawrence (Aguilar 1986, Reeves et al. 1999, Reeves 2001).  Prior to the 1930s they were also encountered and hunted during the summer in pelagic waters, particularly near the eastern edge of the Grand Bank and in an area directly east and southeast of Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland (Reeves and Mitchell 1986).  

Figure 1: Western Atlantic range and present day distribution of the North Atlantic right whale. Critical habitat areas in U.S. waters are those areas formally designated under the  U.S. Endangered Species Act. (Prepared by K. Lagueux, New England Aquarium).

 

Figure 1: Western Atlantic range and present day distribution of the North Atlantic right whale. Critical habitat areas in U.S. waters are those areas formally designated under the  U.S. Endangered Species Act. (Prepared by K. Lagueux, New England Aquarium).

 1.2.2. Canadian Range

Two of the five known high-use habitat areas for this species are located in Atlantic Canada (Figures 1 and 2) with the other three located in the U.S. (Figure 1).  In the summer and autumn, North Atlantic right whales are observed suckling, feeding, and socializing in the lower Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and feeding and socializing in Roseway Basin between Browns and Baccaro Banks on the western Scotian Shelf (Stone et al. 1988, Kraus and Brown 1992, Brown et al. 1995).  The Bay of Fundy has been monitored annually since 1980 by researchers from the New England Aquarium (NEAq, Boston, Massachusetts). Monitoring of Roseway Basin has been more sporadic with surveys occurring in 1979-1980, 1985-1993, and 1998-2006 by the NEAq and other research groups. 

In addition, there are several other areas of Atlantic Canadian waters where North Atlantic right whales have been seen (Figure 2).  For example, North Atlantic right whales have been sighted in deep basins on the eastern Scotian Shelf (Mitchell et al. 1986; T. Cole, personal communication [1]), in the St. Lawrence Estuary near the confluence of the Saguenay River in 1998 (R. Michaud, pers. comm.), near the Mingan Islands off the lower north shore of Quebec in 1994, 1995, and 1998 (R. Sears, pers. comm.), and more than 30 different individuals over a decade near the mouth of the Baie des Chaleurs south of the Gaspé Peninsula in 1995-1998, and 2000-2006 (N. Cadet, J.F. Blouin pers. comm.). A dead North Atlantic right whale was found near the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2001 (NEAq unpublished data), and in the same year an entangled North Atlantic right whale was tracked with a satellite-monitored transmitter along the eastern Scotian Shelf into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Magdalen Islands and back to the Scotian Shelf, then south into the Gulf of Maine (Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, unpublished data). Photographed sightings of North Atlantic right whales during the summer months from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Gaspé Peninsula, and Labrador Basin, (Knowlton et al. 1992) have been matched to individuals in the identification catalogue for the North Atlantic right whale (Hamilton and Martin 1999).

North Atlantic right whales have not been sighted for more than a century in the historical whaling grounds in the Strait of Belle Isle between Labrador and Newfoundland. Here the species’ range is believed to have overlapped that of the bowhead whale (Aguilar 1986, Cumbaa 1986).  Recent analyses of DNA extracted from bone indicate that, contrary to what was previously believed, a very high proportion of the whales taken by the Basque whalers at Red Bay, Labrador, were bowheads (Balaena mysticetus) rather than North Atlantic right whales (Rastogi et al. 2004).

Figure 2. Canadian range of the North Atlantic right whale: 1951-2005. This map is based on individual North Atlantic right whale sightings from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium 1951-2005, the St. Andrews Biological Station whale sightings database 1992-2005 and the DFO Newfoundland Region whale sighting database 1975-2003.  Dots indicate North Atlantic right whale sightings (with U.S. waters data removed) and the red dotted lines are the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone of Canada, the United States and St. Pierre and Miquelon (France). (Prepared by Oceans and Coastal Management Division, DFO)

Figure 2: Canadian range of the North Atlantic right whale: 1951-2005. This map is based on individual North Atlantic right whale sightings from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium 1951-2005, the St. Andrews Biological Station whale sightings database 1992-2005 and the DFO Newfoundland Region whale sighting database 1975-2003.  Dots indicate North Atlantic right whale sightings (with U.S. waters data removed) and the red dotted lines are the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone of Canada, the United States and St. Pierre and Miquelon (France). (Prepared by Oceans and Coastal Management Division, DFO)



[1] Institutional affiliation for personal communications can be found at end of the References section.