The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered whales. Once common along the eastern U.S. seaboard, the whale was hunted to near-extinction by the 1750s. While no longer pursued for its oil, meat and bones, these whales continue to be the victim of ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, which can result in protracted, painful deaths. Right whales are declining so quickly that they may be functionally extinct by 2040 if more isn’t done to save them.


In its 2020 update of its "Red List of Threatened Species," the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared North Atlantic right whales “critically endangered,” the most serious category of risk, with only about 400 animals left and fewer than 250 adults. The IUCN lists ship strikes and entanglement as the primary threats to the species, noting that climate change is exacerbating such risks by pushing the animals into new habitat areas as they follow their food.



The Center has been instrumental in protecting these whales for more than a decade, garnering rules to slow down ships and requiring less risky fishing gear — and expanding their “critical habitat” to include 39,414 square miles of ocean. The Center and allies have been urging the Canadian government to protect right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and other Canadian waters from ship strikes and entanglements in snow crab and other commercial fishing gear.

Fishing Gear Entanglement

Among many other actions, defending these whales from entanglement in fishing gear, in 2018 the Center and allies sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to prevent North Atlantic right whales from becoming ensnared in lobster trap lines. In 2020 we won that suit.

Speeding Ships

We're also working on limiting ship speeds off the Atlantic coast to help protect these whales from boat strikes: In 2013, due to a petition by the Center and allies, the National Marine Fisheries Service finalized a rule setting ship speed limits to protect these giant, gentle animals from speedy vessels all along the U.S. East Coast.

In 2020 the Center and allies filed a rulemaking petition seeking additional ship-speed limits along the Atlantic coast to protect critically North Atlantic right whales. This was shortly after a baby right whale was found dead off the coast of New Jersey, with propeller wounds across its head, chest and tail.

Seismic Blasts

North Atlantic right whales are greatly threatened by seismic exploration for oil and gas, which uses high-powered airguns that can reach more than 250 decibels and cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors like feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish. In 2017 the Center and allies moved to intervene in an administrative appeal by the oil industry challenging a federal decision to reject six oil and gas exploration permits for the Atlantic Ocean. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management denied the seismic airgun survey applications in part because the loud blasts would hurt endangered North Atlantic right whales and other sensitive wildlife.

North Atlantic right whale photo courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488.