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(Right whale photo)

The North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica)

- the most endangered whale -

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.)

(updated August 25, 2023)

Regulatory News

NMFS Five Year review of status of NPRW

On March 29, 2022  the National Marine Fisheries Service announced the initiation of a 5-year review of the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  On May 31, 2022 the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission responded to NMFS' request for information in a 5 page letter. The MMC wrote in part:

In the Commission's estimation, the small number of individuals in the two populations, and especially the very small number of known females in the eastern population, is the greatest risk to the species. Ship strikes and entanglements, although poorly documented, are likely the most immediate serious anthropogenic threats. Lesser or less immediate potential direct and indirect anthropogenic threats include noise from ships, climate change, energy development, pollution, and harmful algal blooms. In addition, the Commission has concluded that existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate as they to fail to provide precautionary mitigative measures that would reduce the likelihood of deaths and serious injuries due to entanglements and ship strikes.

...In summary, the Commission supports NMFS reaffirming the 'endangered’' status of the North Pacific right whale under the ESA because, at a minimum, 1) the species' abundance is dangerously low, especially for the eastern population, and 2) measures designed to mitigate the impacts of ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, which could jeopardize the continued existence of the eastern population, are lacking. The Commission is aware that the Alaska Region and Fisheries Science Center are working to understand the risks faced by eastern North Pacific right whales and to promote their recovery, but are severely hampered by insufficient funding. The Commission urges NOAA Fisheries to adequately fund critical research on eastern North Pacific right whales, and the precautionary mitigation of the most important anthropogenic threats they likely face.

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Update re Designated Critical Habitat. In May 2008 the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated Critical Habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the North Pacific Right Whale in the SE Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. 

On March 10, 2022 the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to NMFS requesting NMFS to expand the critical habitat designation (link to petition). The Center's petition argues :

New research from NMFS and others provides valuable, much-needed information to protect its essential habitats--confirming a key travel corridor and identifying main foraging grounds that extend beyond that previously documented. These habitats are critical to the survival and recovery of the world's most endangered whale, and special management considerations are urgently necessary to protect these areas given the high magnitude of threats confronting them and the precarious status of the species.

...The best available science demonstrates that Unimak Pass, Albatross Bank, and Barnabas Trough are essential to the survival and recovery of North Pacific right whales. NMFS should propose an expanded critical habitat designation to include these vital areas, connecting the two existing critical habitat units into an expanded, single unit as proposed. Expanded critical habitat will provide NMFS and others additional authority to implement special management considerations and protections--which could be the determining factor in the fate of the species.

On July 12, 2022  NMFS announced a "90 day finding" that the Center's petition "presents substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned action may be warranted and formally initiated a review of the currently designated critical habitat to determine whether revision is warranted." NMFS solicited scientific and commercial information about this proposal. On September 12, 2022, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission wrote formal comments to NOAA. In its comments, the MMC

The Endangered Species Act requires within 12 months after receiving the Petition (i.e March 19, 2023) NMFS is required to "determine how [NMFS] intends to proceed  with the requested critical habitat designation and promptly publish notice of such intention in the Federal Register."  The 12 month period would end on March 9, 2023. I have not at this time learned what NMFS's intention is with respect to the Center's, and will try to update this page when I learn it.

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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.

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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.