At critical time for species’ survival, annual journal explores issues facing North Atlantic right whales


Aquarium scientists share personal reflections and latest research

Whalewatcher Journal Cover

BOSTON, MASS. (January 31, 2022) – With the number of North Atlantic right whales having dropped significantly to only about 336, 14 scientists have contributed to the annual Journal of the American Cetacean Society “WhaleWatcher” with articles about the plight and status of Southern right whales, North Pacific right whales, and critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Dr. Peter Corkeron, the New England Aquarium’s Senior Scientist and Chair of the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, is the issue’s guest editor. Aquarium Senior Scientists Amy Knowlton and Philip Hamilton, Research Scientist Heather Pettis, and Emeritus Scientist Dr. Scott Kraus also have articles in the issue.

“Here we tell our tales of right whales from around the globe, doing what we can to change the world, make it safer for whales. Because these days, the data speak to serious problems. We are failing at whale conservation,” Corkeron writes.

For more than 40 years, the Aquarium’s North Atlantic Right Whale team has been at the forefront of research, instrumental in working with fishermen to find solutions to the problems of fishing gear entanglement, ship strikes, and other human-caused hazards which are threatening the survival of the species.

A focal point for their work is the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, an invaluable database of 86,000 photographed right whale sightings and one of the longest running catalogs, with continuous incoming data since 1980 and historic images going back to 1935. In his essay, Hamilton recounts how, for 35 years, he has managed the Catalog which has helped scientists learn that right whales give birth at age 10 on average and mothers can wean their young as early as six months and as late as 18 months. He has been able to track the whales, their travels, injuries, births, and deaths. He records entanglement scars, identifies dead and injured whales, new mothers and their calves, and analyzes behaviors such as how often whales swim to the bottom of the ocean and return with mud on their heads. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of knowing the individual,” he writes.

Pettis and Kraus write about the history of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) over the last three decades. The annual gathering brings together 200 participants to discuss science, government, and data. “The NARWC data sharing framework is critical to the long-term survival of the of the North Atlantic right whale,” they wrote. “Without it, our detailed knowledge about this species, including the dire conservation crisis it currently faces, would not exist.”

Knowlton writes about her experience becoming a right whale scientist and how observations over the years help scientists understand behavior, pregnancies, stressors, and mating rituals. She has also studied their health and body condition over the years. “The challenging aspect of this career has come from witnessing all the insults and impacts that this species endures living along this heavily industrialized coastline,” she writes.

From documenting 1,600 fishing gear entanglements with right whales over more than 40 years, Knowlton said they have determined that 87 percent of the species has endured at least one entanglement, and some have experienced more than eight. She has also been instrumental in researching the breaking strengths of ropes at 1,700 pounds so that whales can break free of fixed fishing gear. This practice is being implemented broadly in the U.S. and Canada, ideally a solution to reducing severe entanglements.

“The situation for North Atlantic right whales is not a happy story for too many are dying from our human activities on the ocean,” Knowlton writes. “The possibility looms with each untimely death.” She said there are strategies of reducing ship speeds, ropeless fishing, and weaker ropes that could help save the species. “These are proven solutions that if implemented could turn the downward trajectory of the North Atlantic right whale around.”

Other articles in the special issue discuss diverse topics, including the behavior of female right whales and their calves; the sounds right whales make; the grisly but vital task of determining how whales die; and how scientists use drones to assess whales’ health. An international team of authors, mostly based in the U.S. but including scientists from Canada, Denmark, and New Zealand, contributed to the issue.


Pam Bechtold Snyder –, 617-686-5068