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(Right whale photo)

Adult right whale off Half Moon Bay, California, March 1982. Note the arch of the head, the curved lower lip and the callosity in front of the blowhole. (The hundreds of white Coronula barnacles around the mouth are anomalous.)

The North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica)

- the most endangered whale -


                                   (updated: April 6, 2024)

Regulatory News

February 2024 - NMFS Publishes its 2024 Five -Year review of status of the NPRW under the Endangered Species Act

In February  the National Marine Fisheries Service published its 5-year review of the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) available at the link above.  I am in the process of digesting this 58 page report and reporting more information about its contents and analysis.

Findings in the Report:

  • The NPRW should remain classified as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act
  • The NPRW's "Recovery Priority Number" under the ESA should be changed from 4C to 5C "largely based on the high demographic risk to the species (sue to the small size of eastern population) and a low understanding of major threats to the species and how effective management actions may be in addressing these threats. There is also potential conflict (5C) for this species due to overlap major shipping routes and oil and gas activities in Alaskan waters."

"RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE ACTIONS

As there is still so much unknown about the eastern North Pacific right whale population, the most urgent need is better information on basic distribution and phenology, including identification of wintering areas, spatio-temporal overlap with and impacts of the shipping and fishing industries, and identification and management of emerging threats to the population. In order to be able to inform management and conservation of this extremely rare and endangered stock, we recommend the following actions be taken or initiated over the next five years:

  • Conduct a risk analysis to understand what geographic areas and activities post a particularly high risk of further impeding recovery of North Pacific right whales.
  • Use of autonomous underwater recording devices should be continued and expanded, with additional passive acoustic moorings deployed in the eastern Gulf of Alaska, in Aleutian Island passes, in Bristol Bay, and in the Northern Bering Sea to provide more extensive coverage of areas known to be used by North Pacific right whales, possible migratory pathways, and northward expansions of habitat.
  • Biopsy sampling should continue to be a priority; data from these samples can inform sex ratios, abundance estimates, stress hormone levels, reproductive status, and feeding strategies through stable isotope analysis.
  • Conduct annual vessel-based surveys, augmented by passive acoustic techniques, to assess North Pacific right whale distribution in key areas. This action will enable the following 3 actions below.
  • Deploy satellite tags on North Pacific right whales to improve understanding of movements, habitat use, and migration.
  • Conduct biopsy sampling to understand genetics and stock structure, reproductive status, sex, feeding strategies, and facilitate estimation of abundance.
  • Collect data on prey availability and quality to enable synthesis of prey data with acoustic and visual sighting information to better understand the impacts of shifting prey regimes on habitat quality and location.
  • Develop the use of satellite imagery to understand North Pacific right whales occurrence.
  • Develop other advanced technologies such as ‘omics, AI/ML, and UxS (both underwater and aerial) to understand North Pacific right whale distribution and abundance.
  •  Raise awareness about North Pacific right whales throughout their range (e.g., Alaska, British Columbia, west coast of the United States, Baja Mexico, Pacific Islands), to increase reporting of opportunistic sightings and encourage public stewardship."


* * * * * *

2024 - New law review article on North Pacific Right Whales: Elza Bouhassira, Among the Rarest: Saving the Eastern North Pacific Right Whale, 40 Alaska Law Review 189-224 (2024)

"This note aims to highlight the crisis facing eastern NPRWs and the steps that can be taken to support the recovery of this rare whale. The paper first presents information on the history of the species and its importance. It next examines existing international and domestic U.S. legal regimes as well as a pending petition to revise NPRW critical habitat off of Alaska. Finally, it advances six recommendations to support the eastern NPRW's recovery: (1) more data collection should be facilitated; (2) the precarious situation of the NPRW should be shared to raise public awareness and support for protection measures; (3) the critical habitat designation should be expanded, but to a lesser extent than the petition has requested*; (4) a whale-ship interaction risk reduction regime should be adopted; (5) whale-friendly fishing gear should be widely adopted; and (6) commercial whaling must remain illegal. It argues that with the right protections, eastern NPRWs can avoid extinction.

* The author recommends that the critical habitat expansion should be limited to areas around Unimak Pass and the western part of Kodiak Island as shown in the map below:

Map of Bouhassira proposal for Critical Habitat Explansion


 
* * * * * *

September 25, 2023 - NOAA Issued its "12-Month Finding" on the petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (March 10, 2022) advocating a revision to the designated NPRW's Critical Habitat based on new information. CBD's petition requests NOAA revise the critical habitat to connect the two existing critical habitat areas. This would entail extending the Southeast Bering Sea boundary west and south to the Fox Islands, through Unimak Pass to the edge of the continental slope. It would also extend east to the Gulf of Alaska critical habitat area off the coast of Kodiak Island. NOAA states that it has not yet decided whether to propose the specific revision recommended by the petitioners or some other revision to the critical habitat designation."

"New information has been collected since critical habitat was initially designated in 2008. It provides a better understanding of North Pacific right whale movements and habitat use.

North Pacific right whales have been detected in and around currently designated critical habitat. Acoustic moorings detected North Pacific right whale calls across all years and seasons from 2009 to 2015 in Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, which is not currently designated critical habitat. 

North Pacific right whales were seen for the first time during winter just outside Unimak Pass in February 2022. Four North Pacific right whales were seen in the Gulf of Alaska in August 2021. One pair was actively feeding in the currently designated critical habitat area off Kodiak Island and the second pair was outside of critical habitat, about 100 miles to the west of where the first pair was sighted.

In it September 2023 Notice, NOAA described its intent to proceed with a preparing a formal revision, without committing to the specific revisions proposed by CBD.. 

NOAA's 12 Month finding on CBD's Petition appears in the Federal Register on September 26, 2023 (citation: 88 FR 65940 and available on-line here).  To identify what areas qualify as critical habitat for this species, NOAA proposes to conduct  an analysis and synthesis of:

  • Available acoustic mooring data
  • Visual sightings
  • Observations of right whale feeding behavior
  • Spatial and temporal patterns in right whale prey

NOAA will also consider potential economic, national security, and any other relevant impact of designating any particular areas as critical habitat.

Based on the data supporting critical habitat, NOAA will then propse a revision of the critical habitat. NOAA will develop a proposed rule that will undergo public comment and a final rule that addresses information and comments received during the comment period.

* * * * * * *

NOAA's policy on U.S. North Pacific Right whales remains the policy described in NMFS'  Final Recovery Plan for the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) issued June 3, 2013 pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.The Recovery Plan contains a good description of the current scientific knowledge in 2013 regarding  the threats the species faces and what NOAA plans to do to prevent the species from going extinct.

* * * * * *

Recent Sightings:

On  5 March 2023 one North Pacific Right whale was seen at 9:47 am close to shore near Pt. Pinos, Monterey Bay, California by multiple observers on a Monterey Bay Whale Watch whalewatching cruise. The whale was heading west. Contact with the whale was lost after 15 minutes due to sea conditions. This whale was also seen by crew and passengers on the Princess Monterey Whalewatch boat that was on a whale watching cruise. There are numerous photos taken that clearly show the animal was a right whale. Of note is that the whale had dozens of barnacles on its back and lips in addition to the callosities. The March date and the presence of coronulid barnacles parallels the sighting off Half Moon Bay in 1982.

On 19 April 2022  one North Pacific Right Whale was seen around 9:00 am at 37° 06.029  N, 122° 26.003 W) 5.3 miles southwest of Point Ano Nuevo, California. The whale was spotted by a recreational fisherman named Jack Gross.  The whale was photographed and a short video taken, now in possession of NOAA which confirm its identity as a right whale. It appeared to be feeding by skimming the surface while swimming.  (pers. comm from William Douros, NOAA)

On February 11, 2022, two North Pacific Right Whales were seen and photographed in the Bering Sea, the first right whales seen in the Bering Sea in winter.

May 26, 2020, 1 North Pacific Right whale seen approximately 20 nm west of ____/Brooks Peninsula, Vancouver Island during a transit to Anchorage. Richard Goings made the sighting and has a 29 second video which has been posted to Facebook. (awaiting more detailed info) 

15 North Pacific Right Whales were seen in the eastern Bering Sea during summer 2017 on the International Whaling Commission/Japan POWER cruise in the eastern Bering Sea. Photographs were obtained of 12 of these whales and biopsy dart samples from 3.

In August 2015, NOAA Fisheries conducted a three week dedicated ship survey for North Pacific right whales in the Gulf of Alaska southeast of Kodiak Island covering 2,500 nautical miles with both visual observers and acoustic detection devices (sonobuoys). On March 10 and March 16 they heard calls from a single right whale in the area of Barnabas Trough southeast of Kodiak Island in the general area of the designated Critical Habitat. Despite intensive searching, they were unable to spot the animals visually.


Wikipedia & this webpage - how are they different?

In 2010, I decided to change the focus of the present webpage from being a primary source of all information about this species to being a complement to Wikipedia's North Pacific Right Whale page. So, with the help of many others, I added large amounts of information to the Wikipedia article.

The advantages of this approach is that Wikipedia has many more visitors and collaborative help from others.  Wikipedia is a know, and generally well trusted website, and it attracts many viewers who would not wander to a specialized site like mine.

How do the websites differ?

  • Wikipedia
    •  Best initial source of general information about the biology, legal status, conservation, and whaling history regarding this species.
    • All information is "factual" and "verifiable" through the inclusion of references
    • The material is condesnsed as appropriate for an encyclopedia article - albeit a 24 page encyclopedia article!
    • (note that Wikipedia has separate articles for the genus Eubalanea (Right Whale), the North Atlantic Right Whale, and the  Southern Right Whale. Much of the information on these other pages also applies to the North Pacific species.

  • This Webpage:
    • In general, this website can host much more detailed information about select subjects, including:
    • News about North Pacific Right Whale biology and conservation that has not made it into Wikipedia
    •  tools to help scientists and other researchers, specifically: 
      • annotated bibliography of papers and books on right whales (I believe this is the most complete bibliography of recent papers available)
      • abstracts of scientific articles that are not available on-line
      • hosting of several papers otherwise not available on-line
      • detailed listing of all sightings of right whales along the coasts of
      • California, Oregon, Washington and Baja
    • This webpage can contain discussion about various conservation threats and proposals and opportunities to address them.
    • Recommended list of popular books and articles about the North Pacific Right Whale
    • Gallery of Photos and art associated with North Pacific Right Whales
    • list of conservation organizations involved in right whale conservation

    The North Pacific Right Whale - What is it?

    Many people know of right whales as a consequence of Roger Payne's National Geographic Society TV specials on the whales of Peninsula Valdez, Argentina. Right whales have also recently gotten attention from whale-watchers off Cape Cod and other areas in the northeast and eastern Canada. Right whales are even becoming the object of significant whale watching industries (and nice WWW sites!) along the coasts of Australia (Whales on the Net and (South Australia Whale Centre), South Africa, and New Brunswick, Canada. However, right whales also occur in the North Pacific. In fact, they were the basis for a major whaling industry in the North Pacific, particularly between 1840-48. They still occur in the North Pacific, yet they are the forgotten whale species. Here is some information about them.

    The World's Most Endangered Whale Species: The North Pacific Right Whale

         Among the large whales, right whales have shown the least signs of recovery after their decimation by whalers. The population in the eastern North Atlantic that supported a major fishery appears to be zero. The population in the western North Atlantic is less than 400 animals. In the North Pacific, the species is so exceedingly rare that almost every sighting of a single animal is a publishable event. There may only be a few hundred animals or less in the entire North Pacific with most of these animals occurring in the western North Atlantic and the Sea of Okhotsk.

         In the U.S., conservation of all whales is the responsibility of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the Department of Commerce. Their WWW site has information about North Pacific Right Whales generally. Pursuant to its responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, in 1990 NMFS prepared a Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale which it is now updating. Because the western North Atlantic population is much better known than the No Pacific population, the former has been the focus of the conservation efforts of NMFS and other groups such as the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA. The North  Pacific right whale population remains elusively difficult to study, let alone protect. The International Whaling Commission convened a Special Meeting of the Scientific Committee to Review the Status of Right Whales in March 1998 in South Africa.


  • My studies of Maury's whaling records from the 1840s revealed very dense populations of right whales both in the Gulf of Alaska, and more particularly along the coast of Kamchatka (RWs seen on 90+% of search days) and along the Kurile Islands. Review of the historic whaling records shows an extraordinary abundance of right whales in the North Pacific in the 1840s. Right whales appear to have been more abundant than gray whales in the North Pacific. I hope that the No Pac. right whale is not forgotten in all the justified concern for RWs in other oceans.

    All indications are that the E North Pacific population is exceedingly small and may be on its way out. Given the level of whalewatching/fishing/pelagic birding effort along the California coast, particularly during the January-March period, the low level of sightings appears to mirror a very small, perhaps intermittent population here.

    Recommended Websites, Books & Articles about Right Whales:

  • Websites:

    • NOAA Fisheries - North Pacific Right Whale  Good overview of the species, its biology, the eastern population (in U.S. and Canadian waters) and the Western population (in Russian and Japanese waters), legal protection or lack thereof
    • U.S. Marine Mammal Commission - North Pacific Right Whale The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government agency charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to further the conservation of marine mammals and their environment. We work to ensure that marine mammal populations are restored and maintained as functioning elements of healthy marine ecosystems in the world’s oceans. We provide science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies with mandates to address human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems. Our role is unique—we are the only U.S. government agency that provides comprehensive oversight of all science, policy, and management actions affecting marine mammals.
    • Wikipedia - the North Pacific Right Whale -lengthy review in popular language on the species, its biology long history of whaling for right whales,history of legal protection for the species, historical and current distribution and abundace.
    • Save the North Pacific Right Whale - private conservation group dedicated to education about, and protection of this species.
  • Videos:

    • Jessica Crance's excellent hour long presentation on North Pacific Right Whales to the San Diego chapter of the American Cetacean Society, August 2023.

    • The nonprofit Save the North Pacific Right Whale has been making a film about the NPRW with the working title of Right over the Edge. The film follows the film crew on two multi-week voyages in Alaska and British Columbia: More information about this film can be seen on-line in the following video  Right Over the Edge Contact the organization for more information about the film
    • Spindrift Images has produced several award-winning documentaries about marine conservation.  20121 they released a wonderful documentary "The Witness i
    • s a Whale" reveals  one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th Century -- the secret and illegal slaughter of the hundreds of thousand of whales by the Soviet Union and Japan during the Cold War. The film also recounts the post-whaling recovery of many different whale species and highlights their overall importance of the health of our oceans. The film contains lots of video of right whales.
  • Books & Magazines:

    • Webb, R. 1988. On the Northwest, Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest 1790-1967. Univ. Brit. Columbia Press. This is a superb, and very readable account about pelagic whaling industry in the Gulf of Alaska, with particular good, detailed study of the pelagic whaling from 1835-1850 when most of the right whales in this region were killed .
    • Right Whales at Risk 2021- special issue of Whalewatcher published by the American Cetacean Society 72 pages. Most of the articles focus on the other species of right whales, but there is a article by Jessica Crance on the status and science of North Pacific right whales which is available at the link below:
    • The Urban Whale by Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland (eds.)  (2010) Harvard University Press. This book focuses on the North Atlantic Right Whale along the East Coast of the U.S. but has great relevance to the North Pacific as well, and has great information about the basic biology and ecology of right whales. Very highly recommended. 
    • Right Whales by Phil Clapham (Voyageur Press) 2004. An excellent book on the biology and conservation status of right whales. Most of the conservation emphasis is on the western North Atlantic population, but is relevant to No. Pacific right whales as well. Well-written, it is an easy read for anyone interested in this species and scientifically very accurate and current.
    • The Search for the Right Whale by Scott Kraus & Kenneth Mallory, (Crown Publishers/New England Aquarium, 1993). Although this book looks like it is aimed towards a younger audience, it is an excellent introduction to right whales with great photos.
    • With the Whales by Flip Nicklin and James Darling (NorthWood Press, 1990). An extraordinary collection of spectacular photographs of whales, including many shots of right whales.
    • Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises by the National Geographic Society (1995). One of the best books the NGS has ever done with more of Flip Nicklin's spectacular photos.

     Please send any comments or corrections to: Jim Scarff  e-mail: nprw4ever@gmail.com with "right whale" in subject line.

 

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