The New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Project began in 1980 to study one of the world’s most endangered large whale species, the North Atlantic right whale. Fewer than 400 right whales survive in the coastal waters of North America. Vulnerable to vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, about half of all right whale deaths are the result of these human activities. They are also threatened by a low reproductive rate, habitat loss, disease and environmental contaminants. Solutions to reduce human impact on right whales exist, but implementation remains a challenge.

Project Objectives

  • Keep the North Atlantic right whale from going extinct by protecting its habitats, reducing the accidental causes of death, and building public support
  • Conduct rigorous science to fully understand right whale biology and the threats to their survival, and to provide the best possible information to national and international agencies responsible for protecting the species
  • Collaborate with researchers, educators, and wildlife managers on activities that will lead to the survival of right whales and public awareness of their conservation problems
  • Participate in recovery actions that reduce the kills of right whales from vessels and fishing gear, and promote healthy oceans to ensure successful right whale reproduction

A breaching right whale.
Lindsay Cooper/New England Aquarium

Aerial survey plane

Close encounters between ships and right

whales suggest that right

whales may not perceive fast approaching large

vessels as a danger until too late.
Harriet Corbett/New England Aquarium

Propeller scars on a whale from a ship strike

Genetic sample dart

Data collection in the field

Research Overview

The goals of the Right Whale Project are to keep the North Atlantic right whale from going extinct by the accidental effects of human activities in the oceans, and to collect critical data on this species. Funding for this important work is only made possible through annual requests for contracts from federal agencies, grants from foundations and corporations and donations from generous individuals.

Right Whale Catalog: Monitoring Every Whale

Like a family album, photographs are used to track individual right whales throughout their lifetimes by using each whale’s natural markings. Researchers curate the catalog of all right whales in the North Atlantic, integrating thousands of sightings annually. As of 2008, the catalog is comprised of nearly 50,000 sightings. This catalog is the cornerstone of all research and conservation efforts for this species, and has been used to develop management plans to reduce accidental kills from fishing and shipping. The Right Whale research team has surveyed and collected sighting data all over the western North Atlantic, including, the Bay of Fundy (since 1980), on the calving ground off the Southeast U.S. (since 1984), periodically in Roseway Basin and the Great South Channel, with supplementary surveys to Iceland and the Gulf of St Lawrence. During these photo-identification surveys, skin and blubber samples are collected for genetic and contaminant studies, and fecal samples are collected for studies on reproductive health. Additional photographic data have been submitted to the the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog by more than 200 individuals and organizations; perhaps the largest collaborative wildlife project in the world. Exlore the catalog and learn more about the new DIGITS software that manages it.

Understanding Right Whale Recovery Through Genetics

The Right Whale Research Project’s scientists use genetic information to analyze right whale population structure, determine individual genetic profiles, define family trees, assess historic population size and determine resistance to disease. The genetics program started in 1988 as a collaboration between the Aquarium’s research team and Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Scientists extract DNA from whale skin samples obtained during Aquarium photo-identification studies. Remarkably, more than 75 percent of all right whales have been sampled, providing rare insight into population structure and inbreeding in this extremely endangered species.

Reducing Right Whale Deaths from Vessel Strikes

In both the United States and Canada, the Aquarium has been at the forefront of efforts to reduce vessel kills of right whales—the leading cause of right whale mortality—since 1990. It may seem surprising that right whales don’t always successfully avoid oncoming vessels. However, the data indicate that higher vessel speeds lead to an increase in fatal strikes of all large whales.

In the U.S., research scientist Amy Knowlton has been working with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the shipping industry to reduce vessel strikes by developing rules to reroute shipping lanes away from whale habitats and reduce ship speeds in right whale habitats.

In Canada, data collected by Aquarium survey teams led senior scientist Dr. Moira Brown and her Canadian colleagues to change the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy, reducing the risk of right whale/ship collisions there by 90 percent. Since then, she worked with the Canadian government to secure the 2008 international designation of an Area To Be Avoided around the right whale habitat south of Nova Scotia called Roseway Basin. The Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin are each inhabited annually by at least two-thirds of the right whale population. These efforts dramatically help protect the whales from vessel strikes during the summer and fall.

In the winter, the New England Aquarium right whale research team led by assistant scientist Monica Zani conduct aerial surveys to protect right whales on their calving grounds off the southeastern U.S. As part of a coordinated effort among the state and federal agencies, all right whale sightings are broadcast to the maritime community in an effort to protect mothers and calves from the heavy vessel traffic in the area.

Reducing The Risk of Entanglement With Fishing Gear

Entanglements in fishing gear are the second most common cause of right whale death. More than 70 percent of all right whales bear scars from past entanglements. Aquarium research personnel are trained to respond to right whale entanglements and assist the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies team on disentanglement efforts when needed. Aquarium researchers Dr. Scott Kraus and Tim Werner are also heading up investigations into fishing gear modifications that could minimize the impact of lines in the water, including ropes with reduced breaking strength, more visibility, and less flexibility. Amy Knowlton and Marilyn Marx are using detailed analyses of scarring on right whales to determine changes in rates of entanglements and monitor the effectiveness of entanglement mitigation developments.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

The New England Aquarium manages the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which is comprised of individuals and organizations active in right whale research and management. The mission of the Consortium is to ensure the long-term conservation and recovery of right whales in the North Atlantic. Members of the Consortium are committed to the coordination and integration of the wide variety of databases and research efforts related to right whales. In addition, members provide the best scientific advice and recommendations for right whale conservation.