The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales in the world—only roughly 400 remain.
What are North Atlantic right whales?
The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is critically endangered—fewer than 400 of these majestic marine mammals remain. These black-bodied animals, which can weigh up to 70 tons and grow longer than a school bus, are often found within 50 miles of the East Coast of North America, making them vulnerable to human activities. The species is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
Why are they important?
Right whales play a number of important ecological roles in the ocean. They help keep the marine ecosystem healthy and productive by redistributing nutrients across the ocean through their fecal matter. After they die, their carcasses sink to the bottom of the ocean where they serve as food for other organisms.
While critically important to the ocean’s health, the number of North Atlantic right whales is dwindling to dire levels. On average, 24 right whales die each year due to entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships—the two primary threats facing the species. To make matters worse, with only about 90 breeding females left, the number of calves being born each year cannot keep pace with the number of human-caused deaths.
Another factor posing a significant threat to the survival of right whales is underwater noise pollution. Right whales communicate with one another through vocal calls, which can be heard over distances of more than 20 miles. The calls let whales stay in touch, share information about food, help mates find each other, and keep groups together while traveling. However, rising levels of ocean noise, primarily from increasing vessel traffic, are interfering with their ability to communicate.
What are scientists doing to protect right whales?
A number of actions are being taken by the scientific community and concerned organizations to ensure the long-term survival of this critically endangered species.
- Ocean scientists and engineers have developed ropeless fishing technology, providing a possible solution that could be both safe for the North Atlantic right whale and viable for the Atlantic fishing industry. One device currently in use replaces the static line in the water column with a coiled rope and buoy that are inside a weighted bag attached to the trap on the ocean bottom. Fishermen can send a signal to the trap, which triggers an acoustic release, sending the buoy and rope floating to the surface where fishers can see them and immediately haul the attached trap aboard.
- Disentanglement efforts have been successful at freeing hundreds of large whales that have become caught in fishing gear. Disentanglement operations along the East Coast of the U.S. are spearheaded by the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, which comprises highly-trained emergency responders from 20 public and private organizations.
Preventing ship collisions:
- Marine biologists and engineers have developed a device that uses passive acoustic technology to detect whales underwater in near real-time. Known as the digital acoustic monitoring (DMON) instrument, the device is equipped with underwater microphones called hydrophones that listen for whale sounds. It can be deployed on fixed buoys or autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders. Information collected by the DMON is transmitted every two hours via satellite back to a lab at WHOI. The data are then reviewed by an analyst and posted on the publicly accessible website, robots4whales.whoi.edu. More recently, these data have been used by Whale Safe, which monitors for ships and a variety of whale species—including the endangered blue whale—in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of southern California.
- Scientists are working to develop next-generation whale detection systems that use thermal infrared (IR) cameras to monitor for the presence of whales in shipping lanes. If they are mounted high enough above sea level—such as on offshore wind turbines—these systems are able to detect whales up to ten kilometers away. Installed on ships, the systems can automatically alert shipping captains to the presence of whales up to three kilometers away so they are far enough away to allow time for most vessels to slow down or change course.
Reducing underwater noise pollution:
- Scientists are testing alternatives to seismic air guns, which the oil and gas industry uses to explore for deposits under the ocean floor. These guns fire loud pulses by releasing air that is under extremely high pressure. One option is marine vibroseis, an alternative method of seismic surveying which uses the same energy as seismic guns but spread over a longer duration. This eliminates the sharp “rise time” (rapid increase in loudness) and high peak pressure (maximum volume) of air guns—the two characteristics of sound thought to be the most injurious to whales and other marine life.
Learn how WHOI scientists and engineers are working to ensure the long-term survival of this critically-endangered species.
News & Insights
North Atlantic right whales are in crisis. There are approximately 356 individuals remaining, and with over 80% bearing scars of entanglements in fishing line, the race to save this species is more critical than ever.
Mark Baumgartner is an expert ocean listener who’s research is providing the groundwork for a new system to reduce ship collisions with whales
Researchers from WHOI and NOAA combine underwater gliders with passive acoustic detection technology to help protect endangered species from lethal ship strikes and noise from offshore wind construction
WHOI has teamed up with Greentown Labs and Vineyard Wind to launch the Offshore Wind Challenge. The program, which is also partnering with New England Aquarium, calls on entrepreneurs to submit proposals to collect, transmit, and analyze marine mammal monitoring data using remote technologies, such as underwater vehicles, drones, and offshore buoys.
WHOI marine biologists Michael Moore and Andrea Bogomolni weigh in on a new United Nations science report suggesting that over one million species are at risk of extinction.
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WHOI scientist Mark Baumgartner has installed a mooring in New York waters that listens for whales and sends back alerts. The prototype advance-warning system could one day help reduce shipping collisions with whales.
WHOI engineers are developing a new kind of lobster trap buoy that could help keep whales from getting tangled in fishing gear.…
WHOI engineers are developing a new kind of lobster trap buoy that could help keep whales from getting tangled in fishing gear.
Drones seem to be everywhere these days, from backyards to battlegrounds. Scientists are using them too: in this case, to assess the health of endangered North Atlantic right whales. Since drones are small and quiet, they can fly close to whales without disturbing them, bringing back incredibly detailed photographs and samples of microbe-rich blow.