Presently, most North Atlantic right whales spend the spring and early summer off the coast of Massachusetts in the southern Gulf of Maine. Later in the summer, they migrate north to the Bay of Fundy,
Both the right whale's name and its endangered status are due to hunting. For more than 900 years, humans hunted this whale because it was "the right whale to kill." The right whale lived near shore; it swam slowly; when it died, it floated; and when processed, it yielded valuable products, including whale oil for lamps and baleen for corset stays. By the early twentieth century the North Atlantic right whale had been virtually eliminated from the waters near Europe and its distribution reduced to the waters off the East Coast of the United States and southern Canada. In 1935 an international ban on right-whale hunting was initiated, but the number of North Atlantic right whales has not substantially increased since then.
While hunting is no longer a threat to right whales, other human activities are. The most dangerous of these are ship strikes (accounting for more than nineteen fatalities since 1970) and entanglement in gill nets, lobster lines, and other fishing gear (more than 60 percent of right whales show signs of entanglement). Other factors include water pollution and disturbance from whale watching and noise. Human-influenced climate change may also affect right whales by changing the distribution and abundance of their prey.
An international and ecumenical effort is under way to reduce these threats to right whales. In the United States some laws have been passed and regulations adopted to help. Measures in effect for Georgia include designation of the coastal waters south of the Altamaha River and out to fifteen miles as a "critical habitat" for the species, ship reporting requirements, restrictions on the use of gill nets, and prohibitions on recreational right-whale watching. Other measures are described in the recovery plans for the North Atlantic right whale prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Gregory K. Silber and Phillip J. Clapham, "Updated Recovery Plan for the Western North Atlantic Right Whale, Eubalaena glacialis " (Silver Spring, Md.: National Marine Fisheries Service, 2001).
The Northern Right Whale: From Whaling to Watching (Savannah, Ga.: Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary), video.
Hans N. Neuhauser, Georgia Environmental Policy Institute
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