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NOAA Fisheries working to protect North Atlantic right whales

Mother and calf.  Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Fluke up.  Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation CommissionPhoto credit: NOAA

NOAA Fisheries is working to protect North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered whales. Two of the greatest threats to their survival are from entanglement in commercial fishing gear and ship strikes. By working with fishermen, environmentalists, scientists, representatives of the shipping industry and others, we have made progress at reducing whale deaths and serious injuries in these two areas.  We are also seeing an increase in the right whale population.  More work needs to be done.

Reducing entanglements

With the help of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a group of fishermen, environmentalists and scientists, NOAA Fisheries has crafted management measures to reduce whale entanglements. Along the Atlantic Coast, NOAA Fisheries requires commercial fishermen to use certain gear types that are less harmful to right whales. We’ve also established areas where fishing cannot take place during certain times when right whales are present. NOAA Fisheries is currently developing management measures to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water column in an effort to further reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear.

Preventing ship strikes

 In 2008, NOAA Fisheries implemented the ship strike reduction rule, which requires ships to travel at speeds of 10 knots or less seasonally, in areas where right whales feed and reproduce, as well as along migratory routes in between.

Since the ship speed restrictions went into effect, no known fatal ship strikes of North Atlantic right whales have occurred in the management zones. Before these restrictions went into effect, 13 right whales were known to have died as a result of being hit by vessels in the same areas during an 18-year study period. The restrictions have been effective in reducing the number of ship strikes so we announced recently that we have made these restrictions permanent.

Working with the International Maritime Organization, NOAA Fisheries also implemented an “Area to be Avoided (ATBA)” on Georges Bank during time when most of the North Atlantic right whales are feeding in the area.

Status of Right Whales

As a result of these protections, in more recent years, the right whale’s slow population growth has been increasing, but it’s also fragile. Our scientists believe that there may be as few as about 444 North Atlantic right whales in existence today. With so few left, each individual whale counts.   

Ongoing Research

With all of that in mind, NOAA scientists and our scientific partners are constantly looking for new strategies and learning as much as we can about right whales. When right whale mortalities unfortunately occur, our scientists lead the effort to determine the cause.  We do genetic tests to learn as much as we can about the individual animal. We can learn more about how to help save them, if we can learn as much as possible about how they live.

We regularly survey for whales by aircraft. We provide locations of the whales to partner agencies such as the US Coast Guard, and we use the survey information to learn more about where the whales are feeding and giving birth.

Partners are Instrumental to Effort

What is really key to our success in the struggle to save this species is the continued involvement of our partners. So, we provide grant money to states, academia and other agencies to help us study, conduct public education, train and carry out disentanglement efforts and much more.

With partners help we can learn more about what else can be done to decrease commercial fishing gear entanglements and lessen the risk of ship strikes. Together, we can find new ways to modify fishing gear and lessen the amount of gear lost and left in the water. And, we can explore whether further changes in travel routes, and vessel speed restrictions can lessen the likelihood of whales being struck, so that more right whales survive. And, the population can continue to grow.

The Public’s Role

We are constantly looking for better ways to inform the public and better ways to enlist their help in this ongoing effort.  We maintain 24 hour telephone hotlines for reporting right whales in the Northeast 866-755-NOAA (6622) and in the Southeast 877-433-8299.  And, our Southeast Region recently released a mobile app that connects anyone who sees an injured or dead whale to the nearest stranding response network. 

The Future

These whales struggle to survive in our busy oceans. Although many of us may never see a North Atlantic right whale except in photos and videos, we can take pride in knowing that there are many people dedicating their careers to saving these incredible animals and many sacrifices being made by commercial fishing and shipping industry members. 

NOAA Fisheries’ goal is that one day, right whales won’t be struggling to survive, but will be thriving. Future generations will see a right whale breach, a mother/calf pair nuzzle, or experience the right whale’s blow in a vast ocean expanse, and that is a legacy of which we can be proud.