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Only 366 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are left, experts say, representing a shocking 8% decline in a single year and the lowest number in about 20 years for this iconic species. Human impacts—specifically entanglements in fixed fishing gear and vessel strikes from ship traffic—remain the biggest threats to the survival of this species across their range in eastern Canada and the United States.
North Atlantic right whales have been on a downward trajectory since 2011 when the species was at an estimated 481 whales. In the past 10 years, the species has declined by 30%. Recent research shows that these cumulative threats are impacting their overall health with less energy to devote toward growth and reproduction, and body lengths decreasing over the past four decades. Researchers estimate there are fewer than 100 breeding females alive and more than 86% of identified whales had been entangled at least once in their lifetime.
There is one glimmer of hope: in 2021, scientists tracked 18 mother-calf pairs, a number that is cause for optimism—though still well below the annual average of 23 pairs from the previous decade.
Industry representatives, government agencies, and organizations, including WWF, gathered in October 2021 at the annual North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meeting to discuss and coordinate right whale conservation efforts in the US and Canada.
“It’s going to be challenging, but everyone involved in right whale conservation is hopeful we can create an environment where right whales can bounce back,” said Chris Johnson, the global lead for WWF’s Protecting Whales and Dolphins initiative. “However, it’s going to take significant investment and the utmost urgency and commitment to create conditions where we prevent entanglements and collisions with vessels in the whales’ critical habitats.”
The threats North Atlantic right whales face go beyond fishing gear and shipping and are intertwined with the overarching reality of the climate crisis. Over the past 10 years, ocean warming in the whales’ historical feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine has caused them to migrate further north in the summer and fall into the Gulf of St. Lawrence—an area with significant shipping traffic and fishing.
In recent years, collaborative efforts to reduce human-caused threats to North Atlantic right whales have involved conservationists, scientists, government agencies, and fishing and shipping industries. The Canadian and US governments have implemented changes to attempt to reduce entanglements and collisions between ships and whales, including periodic closures of certain fishing areas. However, some seasonal fishing closures are being challenged in the US and courts could overturn them. There are areas with both mandatory and voluntary speed limits for vessels, although recent reports found that people ignore voluntary measures and the laws need to be stronger.
Whales rely on critical ocean habitats—areas where they feed, mate, give birth, nurse young, socialize or migrate—for their survival. Growing evidence shows that protecting whales and their habitats benefits nature and people, too. Whales play a critical role in maintaining ocean health and regulating global climate impacts, thus contributing to the resilience of a global ocean economy.
One emerging hope in saving the North Atlantic right whale is technological innovation. Several new ropeless fishing technologies—marking and retrieving traps without vertical lines that entangle right whales—are currently being explored and tested in both Canada and the US. While still in development, further testing and funding are needed to ensure that these technologies provide an effective and affordable solution.