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North Pacific Right Whale




North Pacific Right Whale

Eubalaena japonica

At a glance

Right whaleRight whales have been hunted for a thousand years. Whalers considered them the ‘right’ whales to hunt because of their significant size, slow movement, easy approachability and tendency to float when killed. The North Pacific right whale is now one of the most endangered whale species in the world, reduced to near extinction by commercial and illegal whaling activities over the last 200 years. Estimates of the North Pacific right whale’s population indicate there to be perhaps only 20 to 30 animals of the total world population of 2,000.

Photo credit: Jeffrey C. Domm

About the North Pacific right whale

The North Pacific right whale is up to 17 metres long—the length of three minivans—and weighs up to 90,000 kilograms. It is a baleen whale, having a row of fingernail-like strands hanging from its upper jaw to filter food from the water. North Pacific right whales primarily feed on copepods, a type of zooplankton. One whale can eat several metric tonnes of copepods a day! North Pacific right whales’ tails are typically symmetrical, with a distinct notch between the two ‘flukes’, or lobes, of the tail. These right whales also have divergent nostrils, so when they come up to the surface and blast air and water out of their blowholes, the spray forms a distinct ‘V’ shape.

How to recognize a North Pacific right whale

If you do spot one you may have just won the marine mammal lottery. No one has seen a North Pacific right whale in Canadian waters in the last 50 years. North Pacific right whales are large and stocky, with square lower jaws. They are usually entirely black, although some have a bit of white on their bellies. The North Pacific right whale has two obvious identity clues: a highly arched jaw, and a series of white growths of thickened skin on its head called callosities.

Where the North Pacific right whale lives

Information on the North Pacific right whale is lacking; its distribution patterns and migratory routes are not clearly known. What is known through historical whale hunting logbooks, however, is that right whales once occupied British Columbia waters from April to October, most likely feeding or en route to calving grounds. Important locations included the southeastern Bering Sea slope and shelf, the eastern Aleutian Islands, and the Gulf of Alaska slope and abyssal plain. In general, right whales like coastlines and large bays, but spend most of their time in the open sea. These days, sightings and studies of the North Pacific right whale typically occur in the ‘right whale box’, a specific area in the eastern Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska.

Why it’s at risk

The first whale to be commercially hunted on a large scale, overhunting has left the right whale at great risk of extinction. The few remaining North Pacific right whales are also at risk from being hit by ships and getting caught up in fishing gear. Human-caused noise (including seismic testing, active sonar and explosives testing, underwater audio deterrents by fishers and fish farmers) might be detrimental to the North Pacific right whale, although it is not known if there are long-term effects to such noise on marine mammals. It’s also possible noise from ship engines could be overlapping the whale’s communication frequencies. Climate change and the resulting potential for alterations in the whales’ food supply, as well as pollution and contaminants, might also be factors that could contribute to the North Pacific right whale’s demise.

What’s being done

The North Pacific right whale is protected by the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). It is also protected under the Marine Mammals Regulations, which fall under the Fisheries Act.

A recovery strategy is currently being developed for the North Pacific right whale.

Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, B. borealis, and Eubalaena japonica) in Canadian Pacific Waters

Species at Risk Public Registry Profile

What can you do?

The North Pacific right whale will get the protection it needs only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats to its existence. Find out more about the North Pacific right whale, and do your best to reduce these threats wherever possible to better protect the North Pacific right whale’s critical habitat. Get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.

Right whale
Right whale
Right whale
Photo credit: Trisha Cheney, Dalhousie University
Photo credit: Trisha Cheney, Dalhousie University
Photo credit: New England Aquarium
Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada