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It’s not easy being Right

March 15, 2008

Disclaimer: the author of this post is completely aware–and a little bit ashamed–of the cheesy title.

Here’s some news you may have missed: North Pacific right whales are now the most endangered large whales.

It’s not that the whales suddenly became endangered. Not quite; they’re so rare that scientists once thought they were extinct.  It’s that the  

North Pacific right whale became a recognized species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Before then, the North Pacific right whale shared a spot atop the endangered species list with its cousin, the North Atlantic right whale. (The two were listed as Northern right whales.)  

Right whales have always had it rough. They’re slow swimmers who float when they die, making them the “right” whales to hunt. Whalers targeted the sluggish animals for decades, decimating all three populations of right whales (North Atlantic, North Pacific and southern). Right whale populations haven’t returned to their pre-whaling numbers, but southern right whales–found throughout the southern hemisphere–are recovering nicely. The northern populations continue to struggle.

North Atlantic right whales are the media darling of the bunch. Found along the east coast of North America, these guys are common victims of ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. There are only about 350 North Atlantic right whales alive today.

There are even fewer North Pacific right whales. Scientists rarely reported seeing more than one whale at a time–until 2004. That year, observers spotted 23 right whales, including two with calves, in the Bering Sea. This was a big deal for a species many had come to think of as extinct, but it wasn’t exactly a resurrection. The right whale remains elusive. Last August, scientists devoted a month-long Bering Sea survey to finding the animals–and came up empty. Current estimates put the eastern population (the group that summers in the Bering Sea) at between 50 and 100 animals. The western Pacific population, found mainly in the Sea of Okhotsk (north of Japan), is just barely larger at no more than 200 whales.

And so last week, the North Pacific right whale received its very own spot on the endangered species list. This recognition not only earns the North Pacific right whale the dubious honor of being the most endangered large whale, but also earns it a little more government protection and its very own recovery plan.


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