Skip to main content

Status Assessment 2020 - North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic Right whale is extirpated in the OSPAR area, with all confirmed sightingattributed to individuals from the very small West Atlantic right whale population. Main direct threats to this species within its extant range are entanglement and ship strikes. It is unknown how climate change will affect Right whales. Chances of a recovery in the OSPAR area are non-existent in the short term.

Northern right whale Status

DistributionPopulation size (historic)DemographicsStatus

I←→1,21,2? Poor
II←→1,21,2? Poor
III←→1,21,2? Poor
IV←→1,21,2? Poor
V←→1,21,2? Poor
Northern right whale
EntanglementShipping including ship strikesClimate change and its indirect effectsEvidence of threat or impact

I 1 1 2Good
II 1 1 2Good
III 1 1 2Good
IV 1 1 2Good
V 1 1 2Good



red – poor
green – good
? -  status unknown.
NA - Not Applicable
*applied to assessments of status of the feature or of a criterion, as defined by the assessment values used in the QSR 2023 or by expert judgement.

Trends in status (since the assessment in the background document)
↓     decreasing trend or deterioration of the criterion assessed
↑     increasing trend or improvement in the criterion assessed
←→     decline or deterioration of the criterion has been halted

Evidence of threats or impacts

↓    key pressures and human activities reducing
↑    key pressures and human activities increasing
←→     no change in key pressures and human activities
? Change in pressure and human activities uncertain
red – significant threat or impact;
green –no evidence of a significant threat or impact
Blue cells – insufficient information available

1 – direct data driven
2 – indirect data driven
3 – third party assessment, close-geographic match
4 – third party assessment, partial-geographic match  
5 – expert judgement

Background Information

  • Year added to OSPAR List: 2008 (OSPAR 2009)
  • Case report:
  • Key criteria: severe decline due to whaling, mainly before 1800. IUCN lists the species as endangered.
  • Sensitivity: long-lived species, small population, sensitive to entanglement, ship strike, underwater noise, pollution and climate change and its direct and indirect consequences.
  • Key anthropogenic pressures: entanglement, ship strikes, underwater noise, pollution, climate change, including its indirect consequences such as changes in feeding conditions.
  • Last status assessment and brief outcome: OSPAR (2008; 2010). There is good evidence of a long-term decline in populations in the eastern Atlantic, and good evidence of anthropogenic threats in the small remaining western Atlantic population.

Geographical Range and Distribution

The species used to occur in the North Atlantic, with currently only a few hundred individuals remaining in the western part of the species range.


The western Atlantic population numbers some 400 animals, with at the most 100 reproducing females.

Method of assessment: 1 and 2


Not relevant: East Atlantic population functionally extinct.

The West Atlantic population consists of around 400 animals and currently is not recovering due to human-caused mortality (Corkeron et al. 2018), in particular deaths of adult females (Fujiwara et al. 2001).


Threats and Impacts

In the past, whaling was the main threat to the species (Thomas et al 2015, Monsarrat et al 2016), however, currently the main direct threats to the species’ survival are entanglement (e.g. Knowlton et al. 2012) and ship strikes (Sharp et al. 2019). Given the current population size, the survival of every animal, especially reproducing females, is important (Fujiwara et al. 2001). Habitat loss is also important, with the species relying on areas close to shore: Impacts of fishing activities that alter ecosystem structure is a concern for right whales. Climate change could have profound effects on prey density and distribution; right whales depend heavily on areas with high densities of suitable prey (mostly calanoid copepods) (e.g. Meyer-Gutbrod 2018, Record et al. 2019). Persistent organic pollutants can have important negative effects on the immune system and reproduction, as the species is long-lived, has a thick blubber layer and lives close to shore for a large part of its life. The effect of extreme population depletion may include reduced genetic diversity.

Measures that address key pressures from human activities or conserve the species/habitat

Other relevant competent authorities are IWC, NAMMCO, Arctic Council (CAFF in particular) and IMO.

Other relevant competent authorities are IWC and IMO.

Actions of OSPAR related to climate change and pollution might benefit the species.

For the western Atlantic population (local, national) measures include those preventing entanglement and disentanglement action, and measures with regards to shipping (adjustment of shipping lanes and speed restrictions).

The overview assessment of implementation reporting was not available at the time of publishing this status assessment. Future updates of the status assessment will take implementation reporting against OSPAR actions into account.

Conclusion (including management considerations)

The eastern Atlantic right whale population is functionally extinct, and there is no chance of a restoration in the short term (e.g. Brown 1986). Measures of OSPAR with regards to pollution and climate change may indirectly benefit the species.

OSPAR recognizes that the IWC is the main international organization in charge of protecting large whales in the world and assessing their status. Also, given the occurrence of the species (remaining western Atlantic population) close to shore, responsibility to take action lies with those nations.

Knowledge Gaps

Knowledge about the species in the OSPAR area is limited to a very low number of sightings that can often be attributed to individuals of the western North Atlantic population (e.g. Jacobsen et al. 2004).

Context & Guidelines

Guidance on the Development of Status Assessments for the OSPAR List of Threatened and/or Declining Species and Habitats

OSPAR Agreement 2019-05e

Brown GS (1986) Twentieth-century Records of Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 10): 121–127.

Corkeron P, Hamilton P, Bannister J, Best P, Charlton C, Groch KR, Findlay K, Rowntree V, Vermeulen E & Pace RM (2018) The recovery of North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, has been constrained by human-caused mortality. R. Soc. open sci.

Fujiwara M & Caswell H (2001) Demography of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Nature 414, 537-541.

Knowlton A, Hamilton P, Marx M, Pettis H & Kraus S (2012) Monitoring North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis entanglement rates: a 30 yr retrospective. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 466, 293-302.

Jacobsen KO, Marx M & Øien N (2004) Two-way Trans-Atlantic migration of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). Marine Mammal Science. 20 (1): 161–166. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2004.tb01147.x

Meyer‐Gutbrod EL & Greene CH (2018) Uncertain recovery of the North Atlantic right whale in a changing ocean. Glob Change Biol. 24: 455– 464.

Monsarrat S, Pennino MG, Smith TD, Reeves RR, Meynard CN, Kaplan DM & Rodrigues ASL (2016) A spatially explicit estimate of the prewhaling abundance of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Conserv. Biol. 30, 783-79

OSPAR (2008). Case Reports for the OSPAR List of threatened and/or declining species and habitats. OSPAR Biodiversity Series.

OSPAR (2010). Background Document for Northern right whale Eubalaena glacialis. OSPAR Biodiversity Series.

Record N, Runge J, Pendleton D, Balch W, Davies K, Pershing A, Johnson C, Stamieszkin K, Ji R, Feng Z, Kraus S, Kenney R, Hudak C, Mayo C, Chen C, Salisbury J & Thompson C (2019) Rapid Climate-Driven Circulation Changes Threaten Conservation of Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. Oceanography, 32 (2)

Sharp SM, McLellan WA, Rotstein DS, Costidis AM and others (2019) Gross and histopathologic diagnoses from North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis mortalities between 2003 and 2018. Dis Aquat Org 135:1-31.

Thomas PO, Reeves RR, Brownell RL (2015) Status of the world's baleen whales. Mar. Mamm. Sci. 32, 682-734

Audit trail

Sheet reference:

BDC2020/Right whale