The Right Whale to Protect

Written by Emily Padden

Writing Intern Learn More About Emily

January 19, 2023

The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has faced hundreds of years of anthropogenic threats and challenges[1]US Department of Commerce, N. O. and A. A. What makes the right whale right? https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/rtwhale.html.. Hunting and overharvesting, coupled with pollution and declining food supplies from climate variability have resulted in extremely limited populations: currently, right whale populations are estimated to be around 340 individuals when at one point there were over 3 million[2]Kenney, R. D. What if there were no fishing? North Atlantic right whale population trajectories without entanglement mortality. Endangered Species Research 37, 233–237 (2018).. Although conservation efforts are in place, and there has been some promising recovery, the species is still far from a stable population size. We can use this knowledge on their slow recovery to generate more attention for the species, and ask ourselves, what is there to know about right whales, and how can conservation efforts be improved? 

The Atlantic Right Whale – Morphology and Behavior

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest species of whale. Reaching up to 50 feet in length and weighing up to 60 tons, these marine giants are characterized by their thick black bodies, “V” shaped blow spouts, deeply grooved tails, and the lack of any dorsal fins[3]Fisheries, N. North Atlantic Right Whale | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale (2023)..

Figure 1: North Atlantic Right Whale https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale

The whales can be found along the shallow coastal waters of North America, ranging from Florida up to Labrador and the islands off the Canadian coast[4]North Atlantic Right Whales | Department Of Natural Resources Division. https://gadnr.org/conservation/rightwhales.. Although right whales typically spend most of the year in colder, northern waters, they will migrate south in the winter months to give birth to and nurse their calves[5]Fisheries, N. Watching for Migrating Right Whales is More Important Than Ever | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/news/watching-migrating-right-whales-more-important-ever (2022)..

Right whales are baleen whales (Mysticetes), meaning they do not have teeth like sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and other toothed whales (odontocetes)[6]Magazine, S. & PLACEHOLDER, R. A. A Whale’s Baleen Bristles Reveal the Story of Its Life. Smithsonian Magazine https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/history-toothless-whales-180964717/.. Instead, their mouths contain large, closely-fused, plate-like sheets made of keratin (the same material as your hair and fingernails), called baleen[7]Baleen Whales | Center for Coastal Studies. https://coastalstudies.org/connect-learn/stellwagen-bank-national-marine-sanctuary/marine-mammals/cetaceans/baleen-whales/.[8]What is baleen? Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA https://us.whales.org/whales-dolphins/what-is-baleen/..

Figure 2: Inside the mouth of a Baleen Whale
https://coastalstudies.org/connect-learn/stellwagen-bank-national-marine-sanctuary/marine-mammals/cetaceans/baleen-whales/

Baleen whales’ main diet consists of copepods (Copepoda), which are tiny crustacean zooplankton. To feed, the whales take up huge mouthfuls of seawater and then close their mouths forcing the water out. The seawater escapes, but the zooplankton are caught in the baleen, and the whale is able to swallow them[9]Thomas, P. O., Reeves, R. R. & Brownell Jr., R. L. Status of the world’s baleen whales. Marine Mammal Science 32, 682–734 (2016).. Because these whales rely on the filtration of ocean water to feed, they are usually found at the water’s surface, where they skim for food. 

The Historic Struggle of the North Atlantic Right Whale

Whales (Cetacea) have been hunted for their meat, blubber (fat), and baleen since the paleolithic era (2.5 million years ago)[10]Kennedy, L. The Prehistoric Ages: How Humans Lived Before Written Records. HISTORY https://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-ages-timeline.. However, it wasn’t until the industrialization of whaling that their populations started to be substantially affected. North Atlantic right whales, unfortunately, are generally slow-moving, reside along coastal waters that have historically overlapped with common shipping routes, and stay near the surface for feeding, making them easy targets for hunters. The North Atlantic right whale got its name from how easy they were to hunt and harvest: As knowledge of their inability to avoid hunters spread, they were identified as the “right whale to kill”. As a result, populations dwindled. From 1904-1915 over 18,000 right whales were killed, and since the 17th century, it is estimated that over 3 million North Atlantic right whales have been lost due to large-scale whaling practices[11]Clapham, P. J. MANAGING LEVIATHAN: Conservation Challenges for the Great Whales in a Post-Whaling World. Oceanography 29, 214–225 (2016).

Although the hunting of right whales was banned in the 1930s, the species has struggled to recover to its previous population density. This is partly due to the small fraction of females in the total population[12]Kraus, S. D. et al. North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis. Science 309, 561–562 (2005).. As the ratio of males to females increases, the population overall has less breeding capability and genetic diversity. Their recovery has been further hampered by other anthropogenic factors like entanglement in synthetic fishing nets, noise from seismic surveys and naval sonars separating pods and confusing young whales, pollution and toxin runoff or dumping, and changes in ocean ecosystem function from climate change. With each disturbance and disruption, we are forcing change onto the whales’ feeding, migration, and breeding habits, further weakening an already damaged population[13]Weir, C. R. & Pierce, G. J. A review of the human activities impacting cetaceans in the eastern tropical Atlantic. Mammal Review 43, 258–274 (2013).

The Environmental Aftermath of Overexploitation

The loss of North Atlantic right whales impacts the ocean ecosystem on many broad scales. For example, baleen whales (including the right whale)  are major facilitators of primary production, which is the process by which carbon is taken up by microorganisms (known as “primary producers”) and converted into organic compounds like glucose. Right whales produce large quantities of fecal matter, which act as a major source of iron, nitrogen, and phosphorus for phytoplankton, which can take up enormous amounts of atmospheric and aqueous carbon dioxide. Not only does this process support phytoplankton, which are one of the foundations of marine food chains, but it also helps sequester carbon — carbon-rich phytoplankton that have not been eaten sink to the sea floor, effectively “locking up” that carbon for thousands of years[14]Arctic Ocean Primary Productivity. Arctic Program https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2016/ArtMID/5022/ArticleID/284/Arctic-Ocean-Primary-Productivity.[15]A Whale of an Effect on Ocean Life: The Ecological and Economic Value of Cetaceans. Animal Welfare Institute … Continue reading[16]Pershing, A. J., Christensen, L. B., Record, N. R., Sherwood, G. D. & Stetson, P. B. The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better. PLOS ONE 5, e12444 (2010).. Unfortunately, however, the decline of baleen whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale has threatened the capacity at which this primary production can occur. Losing the source of nutrients to kickstart the sequestration process means that not only will marine food chains suffer the loss of their primary producers, but the ocean will have a smaller capacity for carbon sequestration18

Current Protection Efforts

Fortunately, attention was brought to the decline of right whale populations before the species was lost. The early 1990s saw a series of international laws developed in an effort to protect the species and their various migration routes and breeding locations. The United States National Marine Fisheries Service designated the waters off the coast of north Florida and Georgia as critical habitats for the whales. They instated strict and specific standards that all boaters, private or commercial, must abide by if they encounter right whales. These laws include vessel speed restrictions and mandatory 500m buffer zones between all vessels and whales in the area[17]About right whales. Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission https://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/right-whales/about/.[18]Silber, G. K., Adams, J. D. & Fonnesbeck, C. J. Compliance with vessel speed restrictions to protect North Atlantic right whales. PeerJ 2, e399 (2014).. The Canadian government has also set specific marine protected areas (MPAs) for the whales based on their historic migration routes and high-use critical habitats — which are determined based on the areas most frequented by large numbers of whales. In 1993 the Grand Manan Basin Conservation Area was designated in New Brunswick as a protected zone for these whales. Conservation areas have also been implemented based on the specific abundance of copepods, and locations with high populations have been set aside as protected in an effort to maintain possible feeding sites for the whales[19]Hinch, P. R. & De Santo, E. M. Factors to consider in evaluating the management and conservation effectiveness of a whale sanctuary to protect and conserve the North Atlantic right whale … Continue reading

With laws in place to prevent direct contact between humans and whales, coupled with the designated protected areas for the whales to inhabit, there has been a decrease in the number of direct anthropogenically caused deaths. However, there are still many ways that human actions will continue to negatively impact the species. Industries such as fishing and shipping have insurmountable economic benefits, and despite fishing lines and collisions from large ships being major threats (and causes of death) for whales, the industries are too powerful to be restricted to the degree necessary for total marine protection[20]Johnson, A., Kraus, S., KENNEY, J. & MAYO, C. The Entangled Lives of Right Whales and Fishermen:: Can They Coexist? in 380–408 (2010). doi:10.2307/j.ctv1pnc1q9.18.[21]Ruzicka, J. J., Steele, J. H., Ballerini, T., Gaichas, S. K. & Ainley, D. G. Dividing up the pie: Whales, fish, and humans as competitors. Progress in Oceanography 116, 207–219 (2013)..

Where Are We Now, and What Can Be Done?

The North Atlantic right whale presents a very important lesson in conservation: sometimes, the damage we’ve done to a species is far too great for a full, successful, population restoration. Although situations such as this are disheartening, we need to learn about and respect the repercussions of careless overexploitation of our natural environment and the organisms within it. Humans destroyed North Atlantic right whale populations both directly through whaling, and indirectly through pollution, negligent industrial fishing practices, and vessel strikes. The story of this species, alongside the American buffalo and passenger pigeon, are demonstrations of humanity’s ability to severely damage a species or environment without even thinking. 

That being said, there is still hope for the whales, and many organizations including IFAW are putting an insurmountable amount of work into the sponsorship, and protection of North Atlantic right whales. So, overall, the takeaway should not be that all hope is lost for the North American right whale (or species like it), but we should also be mindful that it will take many years, if ever, for them to return to their previous population sizes. Lessons like this one only strengthen the urgency of conservation cooperation, and as we educate ourselves more on endangered species, like the North Atlantic right whale, we have a greater opportunity to avoid forcing other species into the same fate.

Emily Padden
Emily Padden

Writing Intern

Learn More About Emily

References

References
1 US Department of Commerce, N. O. and A. A. What makes the right whale right? https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/rtwhale.html.
2 Kenney, R. D. What if there were no fishing? North Atlantic right whale population trajectories without entanglement mortality. Endangered Species Research 37, 233–237 (2018).
3 Fisheries, N. North Atlantic Right Whale | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/north-atlantic-right-whale (2023).
4 North Atlantic Right Whales | Department Of Natural Resources Division. https://gadnr.org/conservation/rightwhales.
5 Fisheries, N. Watching for Migrating Right Whales is More Important Than Ever | NOAA Fisheries. NOAA https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/news/watching-migrating-right-whales-more-important-ever (2022).
6 Magazine, S. & PLACEHOLDER, R. A. A Whale’s Baleen Bristles Reveal the Story of Its Life. Smithsonian Magazine https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/history-toothless-whales-180964717/.
7 Baleen Whales | Center for Coastal Studies. https://coastalstudies.org/connect-learn/stellwagen-bank-national-marine-sanctuary/marine-mammals/cetaceans/baleen-whales/.
8 What is baleen? Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA https://us.whales.org/whales-dolphins/what-is-baleen/.
9 Thomas, P. O., Reeves, R. R. & Brownell Jr., R. L. Status of the world’s baleen whales. Marine Mammal Science 32, 682–734 (2016).
10 Kennedy, L. The Prehistoric Ages: How Humans Lived Before Written Records. HISTORY https://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-ages-timeline.
11 Clapham, P. J. MANAGING LEVIATHAN: Conservation Challenges for the Great Whales in a Post-Whaling World. Oceanography 29, 214–225 (2016).
12 Kraus, S. D. et al. North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis. Science 309, 561–562 (2005).
13 Weir, C. R. & Pierce, G. J. A review of the human activities impacting cetaceans in the eastern tropical Atlantic. Mammal Review 43, 258–274 (2013).
14 Arctic Ocean Primary Productivity. Arctic Program https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2016/ArtMID/5022/ArticleID/284/Arctic-Ocean-Primary-Productivity.
15 A Whale of an Effect on Ocean Life: The Ecological and Economic Value of Cetaceans. Animal Welfare Institute https://awionline.org/awi-quarterly/fall-2017/whale-effect-ocean-life-ecological-and-economic-value-cetaceans.
16 Pershing, A. J., Christensen, L. B., Record, N. R., Sherwood, G. D. & Stetson, P. B. The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better. PLOS ONE 5, e12444 (2010).
17 About right whales. Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission https://myfwc.com/research/wildlife/right-whales/about/.
18 Silber, G. K., Adams, J. D. & Fonnesbeck, C. J. Compliance with vessel speed restrictions to protect North Atlantic right whales. PeerJ 2, e399 (2014).
19 Hinch, P. R. & De Santo, E. M. Factors to consider in evaluating the management and conservation effectiveness of a whale sanctuary to protect and conserve the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Marine Policy 35, 163–180 (2011).
20 Johnson, A., Kraus, S., KENNEY, J. & MAYO, C. The Entangled Lives of Right Whales and Fishermen:: Can They Coexist? in 380–408 (2010). doi:10.2307/j.ctv1pnc1q9.18.
21 Ruzicka, J. J., Steele, J. H., Ballerini, T., Gaichas, S. K. & Ainley, D. G. Dividing up the pie: Whales, fish, and humans as competitors. Progress in Oceanography 116, 207–219 (2013).

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