North Atlantic Right Whales 101
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered whales. Named by fishermen as the “right” whale to hunt due to its tendency to swim close to shore and float when dead, the species was decimated by commercial whaling in the early twentieth century. Today, fewer than 400 right whales remain. The National Marine Fisheries Service has previously stated that the “loss of even a single individual may contribute to the extinction of the species.”
Why They’re Important
Due to the highly depleted status of the right whale, it is difficult to know the role that a healthy population would play in the complex marine ecosystem. Scientists are beginning to examine the effect of whales and the tiny marine animals that they eat on the ocean’s ability to store excess carbon in the atmosphere.
Human activities continue to pose the greatest threat to right whale survival today. In 2011 alone, at least four adult right whales were killed, including two from injuries related to entanglement in fishing gear and one as the result of a ship strike.
What Defenders Is Doing to Help North Atlantic Right Whales
Defenders of Wildlife has long led the conservation community’s efforts to protect right whales from ship strikes. In 2008, we succeeded in prompting the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to publish the first-ever speed limits for large ships to protect right whales. We are now working to ensure that those speed limits continue to protect right whales, including in renewable energy development and other significant developments along the East Coast.
Defenders is also working to reduce the number of Atlantic large whales entangled in fishing gear. As a member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, we work with fishermen, scientists, government officials and conservationists to find solutions to the problem of marine mammal entanglement. We have also taken NMFS to court for continuing to allow federal fisheries to injure and kill critically endangered right whales while new protections are still being developed. We are asking that the agency take immediate action to ensure that the fisheries can operate in a way that’s safe for whales.
Finally, our work includes efforts to expand critical habitat protections for right whales all along the East Coast. In 2009, we filed a petition with NMFS asking the agency to expand habitat protections in the right whale’s nursery, breeding and feeding grounds, and for the first time designate as critical habitat the essential migratory route that connects these areas.