They might be rare, but some lucky folks do see them, like this whale in California in 2017. And the more people keeping their eyes out for them, the better!
This photo is courtesy of Mark Hoffman (© 2017) and is licensed under Creative Commons
How do we save them?
Recovering North Pacific right whales is not an easy task; their large size prevents hands-on approaches that have been successful with other endangered species. The most important things we can do are identify causes of death and stress throughout their habitat and then reduce those threats. But this is the challenge. North Pacific right whales are so rare that we don’t even know the extent of their range or how they use their habitat. Basic life history facts like where North Pacific right whales go to breed or have their babies are missing from our knowledge of these whales. The first steps toward recovery are based around research and learning more about them.
Saving a species of whale with such a small population is likely a century-long task. But other populations of whales have recovered from very small numbers. Gray whales in the Pacific have returned to sustainable population levels since they became protected in 1935. Unfortunately, grey whales are also a model of what can go wrong. Atlantic grey whales were hunted to extinction in the 18th century.
Organizations across the Pacific, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are striving to learn more about this endangered whale. We will work to promote the research goals stated in NOAA’s recovery plan, define how right whales use the North Pacific, and identify threats to the whales. Projects that should be funded are:
Satellite tags to understand North Pacific right whale seasonal migration
Increased hydrophone deployment and monitoring to understand the extent of North Pacific right whale range
Dedicated surveys in the Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Coast of North America to monitor the population
Dedicated survey in the winter/spring to locate calving grounds
Data collection on potential fisheries interactions in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska
Few people know that the North Pacific right whale even exists! We need to make this endangered species a common conversation point. The more we talk about it and push for their protection, the greater chance we’ll have to save them. We also need to talk to the people who are out fishing in the whales’ habitat. We need to learn from them what their interactions with these whales are like. Education initiatives we hope to make happen are:
Identify stakeholders and screen the North Pacific right whale film for them
Education materials and film screening for policy makers
Communicate the importance of North Pacific right whale conservation to other conservation organizations
North Pacific right whale identification material for commercial fishermen and fisheries observers
Classroom programs and right whale events
Callosity Club: the North Pacific right whale fan club
We need to take the data and the stakeholder needs and combine them into long and short term goals to increase the population. These goals include:
Working with our partners at NOAA to declare new areas of critical habitat
Working at the state and federal level to create fisheries regulations that reduces or eliminates the risk of entanglement
Creating incentives to change fishing practices and reduce the risk of entanglement
Working with regulators and the shipping industry to reduce or eliminate the threat of ship strike
We need to create an actionable plan with the people in these waters. This includes fishermen, Indigenous Peoples, boaters, and international communities.
Tens of thousands of whales
30 in the eastern North Pacific
100s in the western North Pacific
Current federal efforts
The Endangered Species Act requires a review of endangered species every 5 years. The latest one was completed in 2017. It found that the North Pacific right whale maintains its status as a critically endangered species and that more data are needed to predict the risk of extinction.
NOAA completes population reports each year for all marine mammals in U.S. waters. The 2019 Eastern North Pacific right whale report stated that a low estimate for the population is likely 26 whales and there is no increasing or decreasing trend for this population because we have so little data. It also specifies that while no human-caused death or injury has been recorded between 2013 and 2017, this is probably because of the remote habitat and it’s possible that this doesn’t reflect the circumstances these whales are in.
In 2013 NOAA released a recovery plan for the North Pacific right whale. The primary goal of this plan is to gather more data on this whale, since it is hard to build policy off the amount of data that currently exists. It also states that the greatest threat to the eastern population is its small population size; if even just a few whales die, then the risk of extinction increases. You can see the status of specific actions in this recovery plan here.
In 2008, when the North Pacific right whale was designated as an endangered species separate from the North Atlantic right whale, critical habitats were declared in Alaska. A critical habitat is an area that is important to the species and its conservation. Fishing is still allowed in this critical habitat. The policy suggestions that have come out of this designation are surrounding the whales’ food source: plankton. Plankton is sensitive to pollution, so measures are recommended to reduce pollution in the area, like improving navigation to prevent wrecks and oil spills.
Sightings in Critical habitats
North Pacific right whales are labeled as endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The eastern Pacific population even received their own designation as critically endangered (a step more serious than endangered) in 2018. The IUCN lists that we need more research on this species’ population size and trends, life history, and threats. Conservation actions should center around species management and recovery.
Through public action and education we want to increase awareness and support for this endangered whale. If you’re exploring this site and learning about the North Pacific right whale, then we’re one step closer! We will provide a space to engage in conservation efforts, whether that’s school presentations, reaching out to stakeholders or donating to the cause. We’re also here to get everyone as excited about this species as we are.
what you can do
Every person you talk to about these whales is one more person who can make a difference. Endangered species recovery is all about public opinion. Not only do we have to be willing to change our actions to help these whales, but we also need to get that change rolling fast and strong enough to get others on board as well. Want to be an advocate for the North Pacific right whale? Join the Callosity Club!