Until recently, all right whales of the genus Eubalaena were considered a single species, E. glacialis. In 2000, genetic studies of right whales from the different ocean basins led scientists to conclude that there were three distinct species. The population in the North Atlantic retained the name Eubalaena glacialis; the populations in the Southern Hemisphere were named Eubalaena australis; and the population in the North Pacific was named Eubalaena japonica. Further genetic analysis in 2005 using mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA has supported the conclusion that the three populations should be treated as separate species, and the separation has been adopted for management purposes by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and the International Whaling Commission.
The North Pacific Right Whale is a very large, robust baleen whale. It very closely resembles the other right whale species—the North Atlantic Right Whale (E. glacialis) and the Southern Right Whale (E. australis). Indeed, without knowing which ocean an individual came from, the physical similarities are so extensive that individuals can only be identified to species by genetic analysis.
The North Pacific Right Whale is easily distinguished in the wild from other whale species in the North Pacific. Right whales are very large and can reach in length, substantially larger than the Gray or Humpback Whales. Right whales are also also very stout, particularly when compared to the other large baleen whales such as the Blue and Fin Whales. For 10 North Pacific Right Whales taken in the 1960s, their girth in front of the flippers was 0.73 of the total length of the whale.
Right whales are the only baleen whale species in the North Pacific that lack a dorsal fin altogether. Right whales are also unique in being the only species that has callosities on its head which appear light colored due to aggregations of hundreds of small cyamids that cluster on the callosities.
The species most similar to the North Pacific Right Whale in the North Pacific/Bering Sea area is the closely related Bowhead Whale. Both species have the highly arched mouths, very long, fine baleen, no dorsal fin, and great breadth. However, the seasonal ranges of the two species do not overlap. The Bowhead Whale is found at the edge of the pack ice in more Arctic waters in the Chuckchi Sea and Beaufort Sea, and occurs in the Bering Sea only during winter. The Bowhead Whale is not found in the North Pacific. The North Pacific Right Whale is also distinguished by the highly visible callosities on its head, a feature entirely lacking in the Bowhead.
Although more than 15,000 right whales were killed by whalers in the North Pacific,, there are remarkably few detailed descriptions of these whales. Most of our information about the anatomy and morphology of the North Pacific Right Whale comes from 13 whales killed by Japanese whalers in the 1960s and 10 whales killed by Russian whalers in the 1950s. Basic information about right whale lengths and sex are also available from coastal whaling operations in the early part of the 20th century.
Relative to the other right whale species, the North Pacific Right Whale may be slightly larger. The largest North Pacific Right Whale ever recorded was an female. Like other baleen whales, female North Pacific Right Whales are larger than males. Brindle-colored individuals are less common than they are among the Southern Right Whale.
All that can be said with any confidence is that as of 2004, there were at least 23 right whales in the southeast Bering Sea, since that number of whales were seen in two separate sightings in August. From biopsy samples, it was determined that 10 were males and 7 females, and at least two of the whales were calves. Prior to that sighting, extensive aerial and acoustic surveys in the southeastern Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska had not revealed more than six right whales in any year. In 1998 and 2004 an individual right whale was seen in the Gulf of Alaska near Kodiak Island and right whale calls were recorded from this area in 2000.
In a December 2006 status review of right whales, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stated: "Recent sightings suggest that the abundance in the eastern North Pacific is indeed very small, perhaps in the tens of animals." The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission in its 2006 Annual Report stated that "the eastern population may now number than 50 individuals."
In 2007, a month long NMFS dedicated research cruise to find right whales in the area of the Bering Sea where they had previously been sighted did not find a single right whale. From July 31 to Aug. 28, an international team of scientists surveyed an area almost the size of New York in search of Pacific right whales. "We did not see a single whale the entire time," said Phil Clapham, team leader and chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "The bottom line, they were not in the places they had traditionally been in the last six or seven years"
The scientists used high-powered binoculars and underwater listening devices in attempts to detect the whales. This survey is part of a larger four-year project to assess the seasonal distribution of the whales, their numbers and where they travel in the Bering Sea. The Minerals Management Service is paying for the surveys at an annual cost of about $1 million. The research is required under the federal Endangered Species Act because the area where the whales like to spend summers overlaps an area the federal government this year approved for oil and gas development. Lease sales could begin by 2011. The whales weren't found this summer because it is a "cold pool year" in the Bering Sea, Clapham said. That means the water is colder than normal. The colder water likely affected the distribution of plankton, which is what the large whales feed on, he said.
Like other right whale species, the North Pacific Right Whale feeds by skimming water continuously while swimming, in contrast to balaenopterid whales such as the Blue and Humpback Whales which engulf prey in rapid lunges. Right whales do not have pleated throats. Instead they have very large heads and mouths that allows them to swim with their mouths open, the water with the copepods flowing in, then flowing sideways through the right whale's very long, very fine baleen trapping the copepods, and then out over their large lower lips.
Given the tiny size of copepods, it takes millions of them to provide the energy a right whale needs. Thus, right whales must find copepods at very high concentrations. Researchers studying the North Atlantic Right Whale concluded that right whales needed concentrations of >3,000 copepods per m3 to feed efficiently. NMFS researchers have recently mapped the southeast Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska for areas of productivity that would support such concentrations of copepods and analyzed the role of bathymetry and various gyres in the concentration of copepods to densities that could support right whale's feeding.
What little is known about North Pacific Right Whale behavior suggests that it is similar to the behavior of right whales in other oceans, although it may differ significantly in its choice of wintering grounds.
To determine where the right whales were, an imaginative cooperation developed between the whalers and one of the country's first oceanographers. In the 1840s the principle mariners who ventured away from the main trade routes were whaling ships. The description of currents, winds, and tides in these remote regions was of great interest to the U.S. Navy. Accordingly, Naval Captain Matthew Fontaine Maury made a deal with whalers—if they would provide him with their logbooks from which he could extract wind and current information, he would in return prepare for them maps showing where whales were most concentrated. Between 1840-1843, Maury and his staff extracted data from over 2,000 whaling logbooks and produced not only the famous Wind and Current Charts used by mariners for over a century, but also a series of Whale Charts. The most detailed of these Whale Charts showed by month and 5° of latitude and longitude (a) the number of days on which whaling ships were in that sector, (b) the number of days on which they saw right whales, and (c) the number of days on which the saw sperm whales". In the North Pacific, these charts contain records of over 8,000 days on which the whalers encountered right whales as well as a record of the searching effort by month and sector. The resulting maps thus contain a crude measure of the relative abundance of right whales by geographic sector and month, controlled for the very non-random searching effort of the whalers.
The whalers in the North Pacific hunted right whales mainly in the summer, and that is reflected in the Maury Whale Charts. There were almost no sightings in winter and very few south of 20°N. The densest concentrations of whales occurred along both coasts of Kamchatka and in the Gulf of Alaska.
In 1935, Charles Townsend from the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) reviewed 2,000 logbooks of American whaleships and mapped on several large Charts the locations of each species of whale taken as recorded in the logbooks. His Chart C shows the location of catches of right whales around the world. In the North Pacific, Sea of Okhotsk and Bering Sea, Chart C shows the location by month of most of the 2,118 right whales taken in the North Pacific between 1839-1909 using data copied from logbooks of 249 cruises by American whaleships in the North Pacific. His Charts do not attempt to adjust for the nonrandom distribution of whalers, so they are biased to an unknown extent to reflect the location of the whalers who tended to favor more coastal, more protected, and closer waters. Townsend's Chart C also shows three main concentrations of right whales—one in the Gulf of Alaska; one along Kamchatka and the Sea of Ohotsk; and another in the Sea of Japan.
Of particular interest are the questions of how many "stocks" of right whales exist in the North Pacific. Was there just a single population across the North Pacific? Was there an eastern population that summered in the Gulf of Alaska and a second population in the western North Pacific. Was the population in the Sea of Ohotsk a third population distinct from the whales found in the Pacific east of Kamchatka?
Recently, researchers made a more rigorous analysis of this early whaling data, along with the more recent but much sparser recent sighting data. They conclude that there are probably at least two stocks of right whales in the western and eastern North Pacific, but that it was still unclear whether the population in the Sea of Okhotsk was a separate stock.
The North Pacific Right Whale's distribution is more temperate than that of the more polar Bowhead whale, and there are no records of the two species being in the same area at the same time. The North Pacific Right Whale's summer distribution extends north into the southeastern part of the Bering Sea. In summer, the Bowhead has migrated north through the Bering Straits and is in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. In winter, the ice-loving Bowhead moves south back into the Bering Sea, but the right whales have migrated south of the Aleutian Islands into the North Pacific.
Despite massive amounts of searching effort by aircraft and ship-based observers, as well as acoustic listening devices, the recent records of right whales in the eastern North Pacific have been limited to a few small areas. Most of the sightings have been in the southeastern Bering Sea, with a few in the Gulf of Alaska, and even fewer in California in winter. In 2000, 71 right whale calls were found from a deep-water passive acoustic site at 53° N 157 W. These are in addition to 10 previously found from near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska at 57°N 152°W In 2004, two groups seen in Bering Sea one of two whales on August 10, the other in September of 17 whales, including two calves and one in Gulf of Alaska. In 2005, 12 right whales were seen in October just north of Unimak Pass, Bering Sea.
There appears to be a remnant population in the Sea of Okhotsk, along with remnant populations of the eastern stock of Gray and Bowhead Whales, however the distribution of these three species is quite different. The Bowhead Whales are found in summer in the northwestern corner of the Sea of Okhotsk. The Gray Whales are found close to Sakhalin Island, an area near where there is massive new energy developments. In contrast, the North Pacific Right Whales are found in the southern portion of the Sea of Okhotsk nearer the Kuril Islands. Unfortunately, this area is extremely remote and access is very difficult and expensive.
Some of those right whales migrated south along both coasts of Japan. Several sightings of right whales have been made in recent decades, for example, at least two individuals were sighted off the coast of Kii Peninsula (one of the major historical whaling grounds) in spring-summer, 2006. There has been speculations that the whales may have wintered in the Bonin Islands, but there are few sightings from this area in recent decades. The latest sighting of one animal occurred off Mikura island in March, 2008.
Until recently, most researchers thought that right whales in the eastern North Pacific migrated to wintering grounds off the west coast of North America, particularly along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. There have been a few sightings in winter in all these areas, particularly in California to support this hypothesis. However, a more detailed study of these sightings argues that the single whales seen off California, Baja, and Oregon were merely "stragglers" from the main population. Notwithstanding large whale-watching operations that operate 7 days a week year around in several parts of this range, there have only been 17 sightings of right whales between Baja and Washington state. The absence of any calves in the stranding data from California further suggests that coastal western North America were never in historic times important calving or wintering grounds for right whales in the North Pacific.
The species is so rare that the National Marine Fisheries Service has had only intermittent success in locating North Pacific Right Whales in the southeast Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska notwithstanding much searching effort. Small numbers of right whales were located in the Bering Sea in 1966 and 1997-2004.. However, a month of dedicated research cruises in that area in August 2007 failed to sight a single right whale. This tiny population was someplace else.
In winter, the whales' location is particularly mysterious. There have been a few records from California and even Baja, particularly in the 1990s. However, despite enormous amounts of searching effort along these coasts by observers in whale-watching boats and other boats, these records have been rare and of short duration. North Pacific Right Whales - The Forgotten Species
In the Sea of Okhotsk, the right whales appear to be found far from shore in the southern part of the sea. The Sea is all Russian territorial waters, so Russian cooperation is required for any surveys. The remoteness of the location and the enormous demand for ships and aircraft associated with oil and gas exploration near Sakhalin Island, would make any ship or aerial surveys difficult and expensive.
One new technology that holds promise for finding right whales is passive acoustic listening. Passive listening devices are placed on the sea floor and record for hundreds of hours. The technology is able to detect right whales that are submerged. It works in low visability conditions and can record for long periods of time.
Another technology that could provide enormous amounts of new information about this species are satellite-monitored radio tags. These are non-lethal tags applied to a right whale, usually by means of a crossbow, that can track the whales' location, movements, dives and other information nd beam it back to researchers with a satellite. The technique has been used successfully in the North Atlantic. The tags are expensive and there are not many of them. The challenge is to get the tag and the right whale together at the same time and place.
Acoustic detection and satellite tags can work together. In August 2004, researchers from the National Marine Fisheries Service in the southeastern Bering Sea detected right whale vocalizations from passive acoustic listening devices. The researchers then deployed directional frequency and ranging sonobuoys to determine the direction and location of the calling whales. With this information the researchers were able to find two right whales, photograph them, taken genetic samples, and attach satellite tags. Only one of these tags transmitted locational data, and that failed after 40 days during which period the whale moved throughout a large part of the southeast Bering Sea shelf, including areas of the outer shelf where right whales have not been seen in decades. Unfortunately, just as the whale was expected to start its southern migration, the tag failed for unknown reasons.
A second risk of very small populations is their vulnerability to adverse events. In its 2006 Status Review, NMFS stated the North Pacific Right Whale's low reproductive rates, delayed sexual maturity, and reliance on high juvenile survivorship combined with its specialized feeding requirements of dense schools of copepods "make it extremely vulnerable to environmental variation and demographic stochasticity at such low numbers". For example, a localized absence of food for one or more years may be all that is needed to reduce the remaining population below a minimum size. As the NMFS Status Review notes: "Zooplankton abundance and density in the Bering Sea has been shown to be highly variable, affected by climate, weather, and ocean processes and in particular ice extent."
A third risk is the increased difficulty of finding mates. North Pacific Right Whales must find mates, and with so few whales in such a large area, this is increasingly difficult. Past sightings of right whales suggest that the animals generally travel alone or in very small groups. In other oceans, breeding female whales have been seen attracting mates by calling underwater. The success of such calls depends upon a male whale being within hearing range. As the background noise of the ocean has increased due to ship traffic, the range over which such mating calls can be heard has decreased.
The search for new oil and gas fields and their subsequent development and operation involves several threats to right whale survival. In its 2006 Status Review, NMFS notes that the development of the Russian oil fields off the Sakhalin Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk "is occurring within the habitat" of the western population of North Pacific Right Whales.
In April 2008, a NMFS review found that there had been no recent Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas activities in or adjacent to the areas designated as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. However, that may change soon. On April 8, 2008, the U.S. Minerals Management Service published a notice of a proposed lease of oil and gas rights for 5.6 milion acres in the North Aleutian Basin. The Minerals Management Service announced the preparation of an environmental impact statement for this lease. If the lease goes forward, the sale of the rights would occur in 2011 and exploratory drilling could begin in 2012. More than half the proposed lease sale area is within the designated critical habitat of the North Pacific right whale. The Center for Biological Diversity is suing to shut down this lease sale.
The exploration phase is characterized by numerous ships engaged in seismic testing to map undersea geological formations. This seismic testing involves very loud blasts of noise which echo off the undersea rock formations. These explosions have been considered to be such a threat to the closely related bowhead whale that they have been banned in the Beaufort Sea during the time of year that the bowheads are present. In its 2006 Status Review, NMFS reviews the scientific studies on the effects of noise pollution on marine mammals and concludes: "In general, the impact of noise from shipping or industrial activities on the communication, behavior and distribution of right whales remains unknown."
Right whales are specialized feeders that depend on extremely dense concentrations of copepods to meet their energy requirements. If the copepods cannot be found in these high concentrations, right whales are poorly adapted to feed on alternate prey. In turn, the high densities of copepods are the result of high phytoplankton productivity and currents which aggregate the copepods into concentrations high enough for the right whales to feed efficiently. The satellite tag studies of right whales have shown them traveling considerable distances to find these localized concentrations of copepods.
Global warming can affect both the population levels of copepods generally and the oceanographic conditions which cause the high concentrations right whales need. This ecological relationship has been studied intensively in the western North Atlantic.
In the North Atlantic, right whales tend to get entangled in gillnets and crab and lobster pots. However, in the eastern Bering Sea occur in nearshore waters "not associated and generally not overlapping with known North Pacific right whale distribution." Pot fisheries occur in offshore waters, but are often deployed in winter when right whales are not known to be present.
After the war ended, in 1946 all the major whaling countries signed the Convention on the International Regulation of Whaling which established the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This treaty came into effect in 1949. The Commission's initial regulations barred the taking of any right whales. Currently, the IWC classifies the North Pacific Right Whale a "Protection Stock" on which no commercial whaling is permitted.
The International Whaling Commission sets maximum annual quotas for "commercial" whaling—zero in the case of right whales. However, the underlying Convention explicitly authorized member countries to issue to their own whalers permits to take whales for scientific research. This scientific research exemption/loophole has recently become a heated, controversial subject as Japan has been testing the limits of how big this exemption is and what constitutes scientific research justifying such a catch in the absence of a commercial quota. Of relevance here is that in 1955, the Soviet Union granted itself permits to kill 10 right whales, and in 1956 and 1958 the Japanese granted themselves scientific permits to kill 13 right whales. It is from these 23 animals that most of the published data on North Pacific Right Whale morphology and reproductive biology comes. No further scientific permits have been issued by any country for the taking of right whales.
During the 1960s, the International Whaling Commission did not place international observers on whaling ships to record any infractions. Whaling nations were expected to monitor their own nation's whalers to achieve compliance. This trust was abused enormously by the Soviet Union whose whalers were directed to capture thousands of protected Blue Whales, Humpback Whales and right whales around the world. In the North Pacific, it was revealed in 2001 that between then and 1963, Soviet whalers had killed 372 right whales in the eastern North Pacific and an additional 126 whales in the Sea of Okhotsk. The Russians have since stopped engaging in pelagic whaling.
All right whales (Eubalaena spp.) are listed in Appendix I to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) As such, trade in such species for commercial purposes is banned.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the North Pacific right whales is listed as "endangered". Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, all right whales, including the North Pacific Right Whale, were determined to be "depleted" in 1973 and remain so classified.
On 4 October 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate a critical habitat for the North Pacific right Whale. Petitioners asserted that the southeast Bering Sea shelf from 55-60E N latitude should be considered critical habitat. On 1 June 2001, NMFS found the petition to have merit (66 FR 29773). On 20 February 2002, NMFS announced a decision to not designate critical habitat for the North Pacific Right Whale (67 FR 7660) at that time. NMFS concluded that the information available did not indicate that the physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species exist throughout the petitioned area, and that a smaller area may contain essential physical and biological features, but the boundary of this smaller area could not yet be defined and NMFS determined that a critical habitat was undeterminable at that time. In June 2005, a federal judge found this reasoning invalid and directed the agency to publish a proposed rule designating a critical habitat. Two areas of critical habitat were proposed: one in the southeastern Bering Sea and another south of Kodiak Island (70 FR 66332, 2 November 2005).
In 2006, NMFS issued a final rule designating two areas as Northern Right Whale critical habitats, one in the Gulf of Alaska south of Kodiak Island and one in the southeast Bering Sea (71 FR 38277, 6 July 2006). When the Northern Right Whale was split into E. glacialis and E. japonica, the rule defining critical habitat was modified to refer to the North Pacific Right Whale. (73 FR 19000, April 8, 200).
After the Northern Right Whale wassplit into two species, NMFS updated the 1991 Recovery Plan with respect to North Atlantic Right Whale and issued a revised.
According to NMFS, a separate recovery plan is being developed for the North Pacific Right Whale. In December 2006, NMFS issued a status review.
In Japan, hunting for right whales dates back at least to the 16th century, although stranded whales had been utilized for centuries before then. In 1675, Yoriharu Wada invented a new method of whaling. Whales were entangled in nets, and then harpooned. Initially the nets were made of straw, but later made of the stronger hemp. Many small boats were needed for the hunt. One hunting group consisted of 15-20 Seko-bune or beater boats for driving and killing whales, 6 Ami-bune or netting boats and 4 Mosso-bune or tug bots, for a total of 35-30 boats with crews of about 400. In addition to right whales, the whalers took Gray Whales and Humpback Whales.
Right whales were taken in this fishery in two regions of Japan: the south coast (Mie, Wakayama and Kochi prefectures) on the east coasts, and the waters north of the prefectures from Kyoto to Yamaguchi and to the west of Kyushu which hunted in the Sea of Japan. Off the south coast of Japan, right whales were taken in a season lasting from winter to spring. Catches of right whales in Kochi prefecture in the Pacific Ocean between 1800-1835 totaled 259 whales. Catches at Ine on the Sea of Japan during the periods 1700-1850 averaged less than 1 right whale per year. Catches at Kawaijiri also on the Sea of Japan were about 2 right whales per year from 1699-1818.
A few Native American tribes hunted whales in the North Pacific. Their catches were much lower than the Japanese. The Inuit along the western and northwestern coasts of Alaska have hunted whales for centuries. However, their prey has been the Bowhead Whale, and occasionally the Gray Whale. The areas they hunted were at or beyond the northern limits of the right whale's range in the Bering Sea.
The Aleuts hunted the Gray and North Pacific Right Whales along the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska peninsula. The Aleuts hunted using poisoned harpoons. The amount of the Aleut catch of right whales is unknown, but was likely to be no more than a few whales at year.
The Nootka, Makah, Quilleute and Auinault tribes of Vancouver Island and the coast of Washington were also skilled whalers. They hunted considerable numbers of the Gray and humpback Whales. Right whales were extremely rare in their catches.
In 1835, the French whaleship Gange ventured north of 50°N and caught the first right whale by a pelagic whaler in the North Pacific. Word quickly spread among the other whalers. The number of whaleships in the North Pacific north of 50°N hunting right whales increased from 2 in 1839 to 108 in 1843 and 292 in 1846. During the height of pelagic whaling in the North Pacific, approximately 10% of the fleet was non-American, primarily French. It has been estimated that the total mortality in this fishery is in the range of 26,500-37,000 animals during the period 1839-1909. In the single decade of 1840-49, between 21,000-30,000 right whales may have been killed in the North Pacific, Sea of Okhotsk and Bering Sea, representing about 80% of the northern right whales killed in this region during the period 1839-1909.
In 1848, a whaler ventured through the Bering Straits and discovered unexploited populations of Bowhead Whales. Being more abundant, easier to capture, and yielding far more baleen, the majority of whalers rapidly switched from hunting right whales to hunting Bowheads. Since Bowheads occur north of the range of right whales in the North Pacific, the hunting pressure on right whales declined rapidly.
In the late 19th century, the development of steam-driven whale catchers and the explosive harpoon opened up new opportunities for whalers. Species previously too swift to hunt commercially could now be caught—Blue and Fin Whales. Small coastal whaling operations opened on the west coast in California, Oregan, and Washington, British Columbia, and in the Aleutian Islands and in southeast Alaska, and in the Kuril Islands in the west. The whale catchers would hunt the whales by day then tow them back to the station for flensing, thus limiting their operation to a fairly small area around the whaling stations. Although the main focus of these whaling operations was on Blue, Humpback, Fin and Sperm Whales, right whales were taken when they were encountered. A few right whales were recorded in catches from these stations. A close-up photo of a North Pacific Right Whale taken at the Kyuquot whaling station, British Columbia in 1918 can be seen here
The development of steam-driven whale catchers and the new "factory ships" which allowed processing of the carcasses while at sea also transformed pelagic whaling in the North Pacific. Right whales continued to be taken by these whalers, although uncommonly due to their rarity. Japan continued hunting right whales through the beginning of World War II. At the end of the war, General MacArthur, head of Allied occupation forces, encouraged the Japanese to resume whaling as a means of feeding their hungry population. However, after World War II, Japan was now a member of the International Whaling Commission which barred the hunting of right whales. Except for 13 whales killed under "scientific permits" it issued its whalers in accordance with IWC rules, Japanese whalers have honored the prohibition on taking right whales.