Protecting the last of the North Atlantic Right Whales

North Atlantic right whales teeter on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the eastern and western North Atlantic, now fewer than 500 survive in a reduced habitat range along the East Coast of the United States and Canada.

WDC’s efforts to save endangered North Atlantic right whales from extinction:  

Hunted from the 11th century, right whales were nearly extinct when they finally received protection from whaling in 1935. Even so, the population has struggled to recover as they face mounting modern-day threats from vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, habitat loss and pollution.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North Atlantic Right Whale Project aims to ensure the survival of this critically endangered species through grassroots to international measures. WDC engages with schools and with the public so that they better understand the impacts of man-made threats and to promote their survival through better stewardship. WDC provides scientific expertise to lawyers and federal managers on measures that can reduce life-threatening risks to right whales from vessel strikes, entanglements, and habitat degradation as well as securing a protected habitat throughout their range.

The Issues

Man has been and continues to be the greatest threat to the survival of many whale species. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the loss of one or two reproducing female North Atlantic right whales per year from human activity could lead to extinction. Yet since 2004, at least 44 right whales have died, nearly half of which were female. Tragically, in 86% of the cases two human causes, vessel strikes or fishing gear entanglements, were either directly responsible for these deaths, or could not be ruled out. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that a female right whale needs to give birth to four calves if she is to replace herself in the population and that two of those calves are likely to die. Other significant obstacles to the survival and recovery of the species include military exercises, the degradation of the ocean’s habitat through chemical and noise pollution; climate change and ocean acidification.

Ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear pose the most imminent and dangerous obstacles to the recovery of North Atlantic right whales. As a result, WDC’s primary work is focused on these threats with additional efforts which include research on water quality, noise impacts and habitat protection.


Habitat Loss

In 2009 WDC petitioned for an increase in the Endangered Species Act designation of critical habitat to include the right whale’s entire range. WDC works to ensure that Ocean Planning Proposals along the East Coast of the U.S. adequately consider right whales prior to permitting potentially harmful activities in important habitat for this species. 

Ship Strikes

Through the efforts of WDC, the Final Rule to Implement Speed Restrictions to Reduce the Threat of Ship Collisions with North Atlantic Right Whales was enacted along major shipping ports of the US East Coast. WDC worked hard through the Act Right Now Campaign to ensure this Rule continued beyond its scheduled closure in December of 2013.  It has been extended indefinitely, but is currently being challenged by the American Pilot's Association, who are looking to exempt some of the busiest areas of ship traffic from the rule.  We are waiting to hear back from the National Marine Fisheries Service as to whether the Rule will remain in affect as is. 


WDC was instrumental in the development and release of a federal Rule mandating the use of sinking ground line in trap pot fisheries, and the reduction in the number of buoy lines used in the American lobster fishery, along the East Coast of the US. As a federally appointed member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, WDC continues to work toward the reduction of entanglements of right whales.


WDC is part of the Education Committee for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.  Through this effort we have worked with other representatives to develop a North Atlantic right whale curriculum unit, geared towards middle school-aged children.  WDC is active in presenting at local schools and events on right whales and other large whales seen in our area.

Progress To-Date

Habitat Protection

In 2009, WDC and other conservation groups filed a petition to increase the legally defined critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales. In 2010, WDC successfully challenged the National Marine Fisheries Service and forced them to schedule expand the critical habitat areas in 2013. As a result of continued inaction, WDC and its partners filed a complaint in the US Courts in April of 2014 for the unlawful and unreasonable delay of designating additional Critical Habitat.  A response from the court is currently pending.

Ship Strikes

In 2009, WDC successfully appealed to the international Volvo Ocean Race to re-route its course to avoid ship strikes within the right whale habitats in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine.

WDC formally requested that the National Marine Fisheries Service complete its required Section 7 Consultation regarding ship strikes. This request was in response to the April 19, 2009 strike of a North Atlantic right whale by a federal marine sanctuary vessel.

WDC launched the ACT RIGHT NOW campaign in 2013 to increase awareness of the threats right whales face, with the main focus of the campaign aimed at extending and expanding the Ship Strike Reduction Rule.  Over 70,000 signatures were collected in support of extending the Ship Strike Reduction Rule, which helped lead to its permanent extension in December 2013. 


WDC was instrumental in the development and release of a 2008 Rule mandating the modifications in fishing gear along the US East Coast.  As a federally appointed member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, WDC worked toward the release of the 2014 Rule to reduce the number of buoy lines used in the lobster fishery along much of the East Coast.  With the exception of the waters off Massachusetts, the rule releases by the National Marine Fisheries Service was substantially less protective than what had been previously considered and WDC is working to strengthen protections in additional areas.


WDC has partnered with the New Bedford Whaling Museum since 2008 to produce a lecture series called, "Man and Whales”, highlighting the plight of right whales.

WDC and the National Marine Fisheries Service have developed responsible whale watching programs, Whale SENSE ( for commercial whale watching boats and See a Spout for recreational boat users, which describe federal regulations requiring all vessels to maintain a 500 yard distance from these protected North Atlantic right whales.

More than 1,500 students per year benefit from WDC's school program to better understand current threats to right whales. “Delilah”, a life-sized replica of a female right whale killed by a ship-strike in 1992 is an interactive inflatable whale in which students can walk inside. There they learn about the threats these whales face and her life history. At the time of her death, Delilah left a dependent calf, Calvin, who survived as an orphan and then a life-threatening entanglement to become a mother herself. This story provides inspiration and hope for the continued survival of North Atlantic right whales.