The North Atlantic right whale is a perfect example of how appearances can be deceiving: One of the bulkiest great whales, it's also quite acrobatic, and has delighted observers with its antics for centuries. Once common along coastlines on either side of the Atlantic, the whale was nearly hunted to extinction by the 1750s, and today, its eastern population is believed to be functionally extinct. While no longer pursued for its oil, meat, and bones, the whale continues to be the victim of ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear — both of which can result in protracted, painful deaths. Yet federal authorities have been slow in implementing meaningful measures to protect the whale. Recent restrictions on ship speeds and routes in whale habitat should help give the whale a break, but more must be done.
The Center has been instrumental in garnering protections for both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific right whale. Our 2005 petition and 2006 lawsuit resulted in the National Marine Fisheries Service recognizing each as a unique species, a critical step in securing safeguards. Since then, we've gone on to advocate for adequate habitat protection for both species. After the Center filed a scientific petition to expand critical habitat for the struggling North Atlantic right whale — and sued over the issue the next spring — in 2016 the Fisheries Service protected 39,414 square miles of ocean as critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales.
We're also working on limiting ship speeds off the Atlantic coast to help protect these whales from boat strikes: In December 2013, due to a petition by the Center and allies, the Fisheries Service finalized a rule setting ship speed limits to protect these giant, gentle animals from speedy vessels all along the U.S. East Coast.
The North Atlantic right whale is also being threatened by seismic exploration surveys, which use high-powered airguns to search for deposits of oil and gas. The blasts, which can reach more than 250 decibels, can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish. In May 2017 conservation groups, including the Center, moved to intervene in an administrative appeal by the oil industry challenging a federal decision to reject six oil and gas exploration permits for the Atlantic Ocean. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management denied the seismic airgun survey applications in part because the loud blasts would hurt endangered North Atlantic right whales and other sensitive wildlife.
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2012 petition to maintain ship speed limits in whale habitat
2010 lawsuit to expand critical habitat
2009 petition to expand critical habitat
2008 environmental impact statement to implement ship-strike reduction measures
2006 status review establishing North Atlantic right whale as distinct species
1970 Endangered Species Act listing
Contact: Miyoko Sakashita