Courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum
Photo-identification studies have been particularly important for understanding the plight of the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). This species endured nearly a millennium of whaling before becoming protected in 1935 by a League of Nations resolution.
Throughout the early 20th century, right whale sightings were rare and many people thought the species was near extinction. Since their protection, this population has been slow to recover and there are currently fewer than 350 animals remaining. The population growth rate is one-third that of several populations of southern right whales (E. australis). Human-caused mortality (from ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear), and low reproductive rates are believed to be playing a role in their poor recovery. If survival and reproductive rates do not improve, this species may become extinct within the next 200 years.
Dedicated photo-identification studies of North Atlantic right whales began in 1980, and in 1986 the Right Whale Consortium was formed. The Consortium began as a structured collaboration among five research organizations and today has grown to a formalized group of more than 150 individuals representing research, conservation, industry (fishing and shipping), and state, federal and Canadian provincial government (www.rightwhaleweb.org). Both sightings data and photo-identification data from all participants have been consolidated into two centralized databases. The first is maintained at the University of Rhode Island, and the second, known as the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, is curated by right whale researchers at the New England Aquarium.
The photo-identification catalog contains more than 30,000 sighting records of 430+ individuals photographed from 1935 to the present. This powerful data set has provided us with a unique window into this population. It has allowed us to monitor population size and trends, migration patterns, distribution and demographics, reproduction, mortality rates, genetic sub-structuring, inheritance of skin markings, degrees of chemical exposure, association patterns, mating strategies and incidence of past human interactions. New research efforts that are utilizing these data include reproductive and stress hormone studies and health assessments of individuals. Our ability to monitor this population’s vital rates, overall health, and effectiveness of management efforts is entirely dependent on our ability to maintain this database of identified whales.