The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales in the world — approximately 360 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 near the Continental Shelf of the East Coast of the United States, 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. With less than 100 breeding females left, the number of calves being born each year cannot keep pace with the number of human-caused deaths.
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 are interfering with their ability to communicate.1
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 and are refining ropeless fishing technology, providing a possible solution that could be both safe for the North Atlantic right whale and may offer opportunities for the Atlantic fishing industry. One device currently in use replaces the vertical 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 an acoustic signal to the trap, which triggers its 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 10 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 innovating and testing alternatives to traditional techniques that scientists and industry use to probe geological structures beneath the ocean floor. These techniques create loud pulses by releasing air that is under extremely high pressure.2 A potential option to this is marine vibroseis, an alternative method of surveying which uses the same energy but is spread over a longer duration.3 This eliminates the sharp “rise time” (rapid increase in loudness) and high peak pressure (maximum volume) of traditional techniques—the two characteristics of sound thought to be the most injurious to whales and other marine life. Additionally, efforts are also being focused on how to reduce the sound level from ship traffic, which is steadily increasing, and offshore infrastructure, such as wind turbine construction.
 M. R. Rolland, S. E. Parks, et al., “Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Volume 279, Issue 1737 (2012).
 S. L. Nieukirk, D. K. Mellinger, S. E. Moore, et al. (2012), “Sounds from airguns and fin whales recorded in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, 1999–2009,” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 131 (2012): 1102–12.
 L. Weilgart, Alternative Quieting Technology to Seismic Airguns for Oil & Gas Exploration and Geophysical Research, brief for Global Sustainable Development Report – 2016 Update (2016).
Learn how WHOI scientists and engineers are working to ensure the long-term survival of this critically-endangered species.
News & Insights
A report out this week in Current Biology reveal that critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are up to three feet shorter than 40 years ago. This startling conclusion reinforces what scientists have suspected: even when entanglements do not lead directly to the death of North Atlantic right whales, they can have lasting effects on the imperiled population that may now number less than 400 animals. Further, females that are entangled while nursing produce smaller calves.
May 10, 2021 During a joint research trip on February 28 in Cape Cod Bay, Mass., WHOI whale trauma…
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 in the News
From Oceanus Magazine
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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.