Recovery of North Atlantic Right Whales: A Historical Perspective

What was the population and distribution of North Atlantic Right Whales before the dire impact of commericial whaling? Whaleship logbooks, old newspapers and period narratives provide clues.


North Atlantic Right Whales once lived across much of the North Atlantic Ocean in numbers large enough to support a major whaling industry for several centuries. But now the population is concentrated in only a small portion of its former range and numbers only a few hundred individuals.

Should we strive to restore the population to its former range, its former numbers, or perhaps to a smaller number that maintains its viability? To understand current North Atlantic Right Whale population dynamics, an understanding is required of their historical population size before the impact of humans. Data from whaleship logbooks, old newspapers, and period narratives are used to determine the former distribution of right whales in the North Atlantic and to evaluate stock identity. These data also provide the basis for estimating past numbers and past population trends.

Dr. Randall Reeves is the principal in Okapi Wildlife Associates, a consulting firm specializing in marine issues, based in Hudson, Quebec. Reeves is a world-renowned specialist in the history of whaling and the conservation of marine mammals. He is chairman of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Species Survival Commission's Cetacean Specialist Group and the co-author and co-editor of a number of books, including Conservation and Management of Marine Mammals (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999) and the National Audubon Guide to Marine Mammals of the World (Knopf, 2002).