North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) recovery strategy: chapter 12

2.1. Recovery Feasibility

Research and population monitoring undertaken to date indicates that recovery of North Atlantic right whales is technically feasible.  A substantial amount of information concerning population abundance, trends and demography is available.  The population had been driven nearly to extinction by 1900, but is considered to have been recovering slowly during the middle of the 20th century, following the cessation of whaling.  The best available model of population trajectory (Fujiwara and Caswell 2001) indicated population growth rate was initially positive at the beginning of the study period in 1980, but subsequently declined to a negative value by 1995.  This initial period of positive population growth has demonstrated that the North Atlantic right whale has the capacity to increase in number from critically low abundance.

The same population model suggests that population growth rates declined below replacement values during the 1990s.  This estimated decline in growth was due to a decrease in survivorship over the time period, which may have been caused at least in part by an apparent increase in human-induced mortality.  The two major human-induced threats are well-known, and reducing these threats is a major focus of this Recovery Strategy.  Consensus among species experts is that reduction of human-induced mortality is possible, tractable, and feasible.  Mitigation measures to lessen the impact of these threats have been proposed and some have already been implemented.

For recovery to occur, it is necessary that human-induced mortality be reduced to levels that will allow for potential population growth.  It is not possible currently to determine if human-induced mortality can be reduced to this level, nor is it possible currently to determine the overall probability of recovery.  However if the required reduction in human-induced mortality is successfully implemented it is likely that recovery is feasible since the North Atlantic right whale has demonstrated previously in the post-whaling era that it has the capacity to increase in abundance.

2.2. Recovery Goal

There are no firm estimates of historical population abundance, but rough estimates are available from two sources.  Analyses of harvest data from whaling records provide estimates of historical population abundance of less than 10,000 whales. Genetic analyses suggest that historical abundance may have numbered in the hundreds to the thousands.

The lack of firm estimates of historical abundance means that a long-term target cannot yet be determined. However, current knowledge of the status and trends in this population can be used to develop interim targets until the issue of historical abundance is resolved. 

The interim Recovery Goal for North Atlantic right whale is:

β€œTo achieve an increasing trend in population abundance over three generations”.

A period of three generations was selected to reflect the time period used by COSEWIC to evaluate declines in abundance, and subsequently adopted by DFO for use in species Recovery Potential Assessments. This criterion evaluates abundance trends over the last 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer. The current abundance is precariously low and the best estimate of population growth rate was negative in the 1990s (Fujiwara and Caswell 2001).  This decline was due to an increase in mortality, especially among mother whales, which caused declines in population growth rate, life expectancy and the mean lifetime number of reproductive events between the period 1980-1996 (Fujiwara and Caswell 2001). There is an immediate requirement to reduce the probability of extinction through fostering positive population growth rates, reducing mortality rates and increasing abundance.  It is difficult to provide firm recovery targets for right whales because a clear threshold for abundance that would ensure their long-term survival is not known.  Nevertheless, it is important to state a desirable (positive) trend in population growth in order to provide a context for the development and implementation of recovery measures and research activities.

Generation time in North Atlantic right whales is approximately 20 years.  Therefore given an interim recovery target of β€œAn increasing trend in population abundance over three generations,” the minimum time period necessary to achieve this target is around 60 years.

2.3.       Recovery Objectives and Strategies

 Determining and maintaining the necessary conditions both within Canadian waters and abroad in efforts to achieve an increasing trend in population abundance of North Atlantic right whales over three generations will be accomplished by implementing the following recovery objectives and respective strategies.  There is a need for Canada to commit effort and resources to support the implementation of the seven recovery objectives and their respective strategies:

Following each objective is a series of strategies that, when implemented, will contribute to the fulfillment of the corresponding objective. These strategies are designed to provide sufficient detail to facilitate the application of SARA, and to assist the next step of recovery planning, which is the development of recovery action plans.

Objective 1: Reduce mortality and injury as a result of vessel strikes.

Rationale: Vessel strikes remain the most serious documented threat to right whales.  To increase the chances for survival, the number and severity of collisions need to be reduced.


a)     Better understand the relationship between vessel activity and right whales by evaluating the risk of vessel collisions based on analysis of all available data on the seasonal and inter-annual distribution of right whales and vessel traffic in Canadian waters.

b)     Consider, evaluate and implement management strategies that reduce the amount of overlap, in time and space, between vessel activity and right whales (e.g. advisories, routing, speed reduction).

c)     Collaborate with shipping interests and operators about ways in which they can, through measurable voluntary action, reduce the number/frequency of interactions between right whales and vessel operations.

Objective 2: Reduce mortality and injury as a result of fishing gear interactions (entanglement and entrapment).

Rationale: A serious threat to right whales is injury and mortality from fishing gear interactions in Canadian waters: this may affect the survival of the species.  To increase the chances for survival, the number and severity of entanglements or entrapments must be reduced. 


a)     Evaluate, promote, and/or implement where necessary, strategies (e.g. gear modifications, effort restrictions) that will reduce the potential for harmful interactions between fishing gear and right whales.  Collaboration between researchers, fishers and resource managers on the development and field-testing of modified fishing practices will assist in the identification and application of mitigation measures.

b)     Evaluate and minimize the effects of all new and expanding fisheries on right whales.

c)     Collaborate with fishers about ways in which they can, through measurable voluntary action, reduce the number/frequency of interactions between right whales and fishing operations.

d)     Support emergency response and disentanglement programs in eastern Canada that are able to rapidly respond to reports of entangled or entrapped right whales.

Objective 3:  Reduce injury and disturbance as a result of vessel presence or exposure to contaminants and other forms of habitat degradation.

Rationale:  A variety of existing or emerging threats to right whales and the quality of their habitat will need to be addressed and reduced where possible.  Mitigation activities, including those carried out through stewardship, will be required based on outcomes of research and further identification of the threats.  Lack of full knowledge or understanding of threats should not preclude proactive work to reduce risk to right whales and their habitat.


a)     Evaluate and reduce the harmful impacts of dangerous substances on right whale habitat including both natural and human-induced sources. Both chronic and acute sources of contamination (e.g. oil spills, vessel discharges, and coastal sources) should be addressed.  Particular focus will be on reducing substances with greater risk to the immune system or reproductive success of right whales. 

b)     Evaluate the potential impacts from existing or future human induced noise in right whale habitats and reduce harmful levels of exposure.

c)     Evaluate and reduce the disturbance associated with vessel presence e.g. commercial shipping, fishing, whale watching, recreational boating and research activities.

Objective 4: Monitor population and threats.

Rationale: Knowledge about the population status and their distribution in Canadian waters is incomplete.  Monitoring of the population, particularly in known habitat areas, is required to evaluate whether the recovery goal of increasing the population will be met.  Similarly, monitoring the nature and level of key threats to right whales is an ongoing requirement in order to respond to issues in a timely manner.  Section 2.5 provides a full list and description of information gaps. 


a)     Promote and conduct regular monitoring of right whales throughout Canadian waters and in particular in known habitat areas.

b)     Promote and conduct regular monitoring of existing and emerging threats.

c)     Support necropsies of dead animals in Canadian waters to help identify and evaluate the effects of human activities.

Objective 5: Increase understanding of life history characteristics, low reproductive rate, habitat and threats to recovery through research.

Rationale: Knowledge about the biology of right whales, their distribution, their historic abundance, the threats to recovery, and the effectiveness of mitigation measures in Canadian waters is incomplete. Research on these issues is required to guide the application of all recovery activities to protect the species and its habitat.  Section 2.5 provides a full list and description of information gaps. 


a)     Promote and conduct research on right whale life history, historic abundance, habitat requirements and distribution.

b)     Promote and conduct research to further understand the factors limiting reproductive success.

c)     Promote and conduct research of existing and emerging threats and effectiveness of mitigation measures.

d)     Conduct research and analysis to further evaluate potential for identification of critical habitat in Roseway Basin and other areas (see Schedule of Studies Section 1.9.3.)

Objective 6: Support and promote collaboration for recovery between international agencies and bodies and between government agencies, academia, environmental non-government groups, Aboriginal peoples and coastal communities in Canada.

Rationale: Protection and recovery of right whales is a shared responsibility with regulators and user groups and communities across their range in Canada.  In Canada regulators such as DFO (including Coast Guard), Transport Canada, and Foreign Affairs have important and complementary roles. However, foreign governments and international bodies also have responsibilities and/or an interest in protecting this species. Information exchange and conservation efforts, often in the form of recovery action plans, among these various interests should be coordinated and formalized, where appropriate.  


a)     Support the maintenance of an ongoing multi-stakeholder advisory body in which to discuss right whale conservation and recovery issues.

b)     Promote collaboration and coordination among decision makers and levels of government to foster joint conservation efforts and communication surrounding right whale conservation.

c)     Promote the involvement of Aboriginal peoples and perspectives in recovery activities.

d)     Engage coastal communities and resource user groups in discussions and collaborations to foster right whale recovery and promote the gathering of knowledge of right whales from interested groups.

e)     Continue to collaborate with government agencies in the United States on transboundary right whale initiatives.

f)       Work with international bodies on right whale conservation issues of interest to Canada. 

Objective 7: Develop and implement education and stewardship activities that promote recovery.

Rationale: Education and outreach efforts are important tools to promote recovery efforts with stakeholders and the public at large. Specific materials and programs should be developed targeting a variety of audiences, and maintained and updated frequently.


a)     Continue to expand, refine, and update programs to educate mariners about the problems facing right whales, available shore-based resources, and how changes to vessel operations will help address those problems. Targeted groups include: whale watch operators, commercial vessel traffic, cruise ships and recreational boaters, fishers and researchers (see Objectives 1 to 3).

b)     Expand and refine collaboration efforts with the fishing industry that promote best practices to reduce the number and severity of whale/fishing gear interactions. 

c)     Promote a public reporting system for dead, stranded, injured, entangled or entrapped right whales as part of the existing whale disentanglement response program.

d)     Develop programs to educate the general public about right whale conservation strategies and stewardship actions.

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