Skip booklet index and go to page content

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

1. Background (cont'd)

1.3. Legal Protection

North Atlantic right whales are listed under Schedule 1, Part 2 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), and therefore the SARA provisions against the killing, harming, harassing, capturing, taking, possessing, collecting, buying, selling, or trading of individuals or its parts (SARA section 32) and the damage or destruction of its residence (SARA section 33) apply directly to this species.  A rationale for not providing a residence description for the North Atlantic right whale has been developed (DFO 2007, Smedbol 2007).

Once identified, prohibitions will also be in place against the destruction of the species’ critical habitat (SARA section 58), where critical habitat is defined under section 2 of the Act as “the habitat necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species and that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan”. Section 1.9 will address critical habitat as it relates to North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters.

In addition to SARA, other federal statutes that offer legal protection for North Atlantic right whales and their habitat in Canada include the 1985 Fisheries Act (under Marine Mammal Regulations and a series of habitat protection provisions) administered by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. The Marine Mammal Regulations give North Atlantic right whales legal protection from disturbance and deliberate killing, while the habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act prohibit works or undertakings that would cause the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat, including the habitat of marine animals. 

1.4. General Biology and Description

1.4.1. Name and classification

Class:               Mammalia

Order:             Cetacea

Family:            Balaenidae

Species:           Eubalaenaglacialis

Common species names 

English: North Atlantic Right Whale

French: Baleine noire de l'Atlantique Nord or baleine franche

1.4.2.Taxonomic status

 A 1998 International Whaling Commission (IWC) workshop recommended using Eubalaena (the right whales) as a separate genus.  The IWC Scientific Committee, after considering genetic and morphological data, decided at its 2000 annual meeting to accept Rosenbaum et al.’s (2000) analysis and proposed nomenclature. It was agreed to retain the generic name Eubalaena for right whales, and to recognize three species, E. glacialis in the North Atlantic, E. japonica in the North Pacific and E. australis in the southern hemisphere (IWC 2001a). 

The population structure of right whales in the North Atlantic is poorly understood.  A right whale workshop hosted by the IWC provisionally divided the North Atlantic (for statistical purposes) into eastern and western sectors and proposed to treat the area off Cape Farewell (60-62ºN, 33-35ºW) separately. However, photographs of identifiable individuals in the western North Atlantic have been matched with photographs of individuals in the Labrador Basin south-southeast of Greenland and off Norway (Knowlton et al. 1992, IWC 2001b). Given what is currently known about right whale movements and distribution, it is perhaps reasonable to continue to view the whales in the eastern and western North Atlantic as separate “stocks” while recognizing that these animals are highly mobile and sometimes move far outside their well-known habitats in the western North Atlantic (Knowlton et al. 1992, Reeves 2001).

1.4.3. Physical description

Right whales are large, relatively rotund whales, with square chins and a generally black colouration with occasional white belly and chin patches and no dorsal fin (Figure 3).  They grow to about 17 m in length, with adult females averaging about 1 m larger than adult males (Allen 1908, Andrews 1908).  Adult right whales weigh approximately 60-70 metric tones. A blubber layer up to 20 cm thick serves for both energy storage and insulation (Angell 2005).  The head is about 25% of the total body length in adults, up to 35% in juveniles.  A strongly arched, narrow rostrum and strongly bowed lower jaws are characteristic of the species.

Gray or black roughened patches of skin, called callosities, are found on the rostrum, behind the blowholes, over the eyes, on the corners of the chin, and variably along the lower lips and jaws (Figure 3).  The callosity pattern is unique to each right whale and is used by researchers to identify individuals (Crone and Kraus 1990, Hamilton and Martin 1999, Kraus et al. 1986a).  Callosities appear light yellow or cream coloured due to infestations of cyamid crustaceans commonly called whale lice.  Baleen plates are black or brown, number 205 to 270 on each side, average 2 to 2.8 m in length, and are relatively narrow (up to 18 cm wide) with fine hair-like fringes facing the interior of the mouth.  There are no grooves along the throat.  The tail flukes are broad, measuring up to 6 m from tip to tip. In the field, when seen along the axis of the animal, the blow is distinctly V-shaped and can reach 7 m in height.