As the weather warms and the 2018 boating season kicks off, NOAA and the US Coast Guard are increasing awareness and protection of the North Atlantic right whale. Most increased patrols will focus on illegal fishing and keeping right whales free from entanglement, the number one threat to this critically endangered species. Coast Guard units across New England will be engaging in patrols to help protect these whales from the beginning of May through the end of June as they pass through New England waters.
Right whales are the most endangered whale species on the planet. There are three species of right whales - North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern - and all are considered endangered. The Southern right whale has the largest population with numbers estimated at 10,000 . According to Wikipedia, these right whale populations are distinct enough to potentially be considered separate species due to lack of interbreeding:
In 2000, two studies of DNA samples from each of the whale populations concluded the northern and southern populations of right whale should be considered separate species. What some scientists found more surprising was the discovery that the North Pacific and North Atlantic populations are also distinct, and that the North Pacific species is more closely related to the southern right whale than to the North Atlantic right whale. The authors of one of these studies concluded that these species have not interbred for between 3 million and 12 million years.
There are an estimated 450 North Atlantic right whales believed to be alive today with only a quarter of them being female. As the Washington Post noted in a April 2018 online multimedia piece on the North Atlantic whale, their extinction may be realized in as few as 25 years. The North American right whale winters off the coast of Georgia and Florida and migrate to their summer feeding grounds in the sea of Labrador during the spring, remaining close to shore as they skim feed on plankton found on the water's surface.
While Wikipedia notes that the origin of the name “right whale” is not known, it is commonly thought to be derived from whaling slang. As Wikipedia explains:
A popular explanation for the name "right whales" is that they were the "right" ones to hunt, as they float when killed and often swim within sight of shore. They are quite docile, and do not tend to shy away from approaching boats. As such, they were hunted nearly to extinction during the active years of the whaling industry. This origin is apocryphal. In his history of American whaling, Eric Jay Dolin writes:Despite this highly plausible rationale, nobody actually knows how the right whale got its name. The earliest references to the right whale offer no indication why it was called that, and some who have studied the issue point out that the word "right" in this context might just as likely be intended "to connote 'true' or 'proper,' meaning typical of the group."— E.J. Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, quoting a 1766 Connecticut Courant newspaper article.
The North Pacific right whale is even more endangered with as few as 40 believed to still be alive in the eastern Pacific and only a few hundred in the western Pacific. They are listed as critically endangered by The International Union for the Conservation of Nature. While the Northern Pacific right whales summer in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, their winter habits are largely unknown. It is thought that prior to the onset of commercial whaling that began in the early- to mid-19th century, North Pacific right whales numbered greater than 20,000. Deep Green Wilderness has a forthcoming film on the hunt for the North Pacific right whale. The documentary details the organization's search for contact with these few remaining whales last summer. Take a look at their trailer below:
What does all of this mean for boaters? While the greatest threat to these endangered whales comes from getting entangled in fishing gear, the second largest cause of death is from boat collisions. These two human risk factors make up 71% of the deaths of right whales since 1971, with 85% of right whales being involved in at least one entanglement at some point in their lifespan.
Right whales are known for staying close to shore and being docile and unafraid of boats. As a boater it is important to know how to look out for whales and what to do if you find yourself around them. Boats should not operate within 100 yards of whales or 200 yards of orcas. Right whales must be given a berth of 500 yards. If observing or operating near whales one should stay parallel to the whale and not operate in front of or head-on to the whale. If possible boaters should turn off depth sounders as underwater acoustics are thought to bother and confuse some whales. See these NOAA guidelines for further information on operating around and observing marine mammals.