The North Atlantic right whale, which lives and hunts in Canadian waters, is one of the most endangered species of large whales in the world.
North Atlantic right whale population: How many are left?
In 2005, North Atlantic right whales were listed as endangered under the Canadian Species at Risk Act and they have not yet shown signs of recovery. Their population is estimated to have fewer than 350 individuals remaining worldwide.1,2
Where North Atlantic right whales live
North Atlantic right whales are migratory animals mostly found along the Atlantic Coast of Canada during the summer and fall months where they are exposed to human activities. This near-surface, slow swimming species is particularly vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. In Canada, these whales tend to congregate in the Bay of Fundy and along the Scotian Shelf. However, starting in 2017, large numbers have been sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Two per cent of the North Atlantic right whale population lost in two months
In 2017, twelve North Atlantic right whales washed up along the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland; an unusually high number of deaths for such a small population. Only six necropsies could be conducted as six of the carcasses could not be examined and their cause of death remains undetermined. Two of the whales had acute entanglement with fishing gear; reports for four of the whales indicated that blunt force trauma contributed to their deaths, which likely came from collisions with ships.
Learn more about five endangered whale populations in Canadian waters, including the North Atlantic right whales, in this short video:
Critical habitat of the North Atlantic right whales
Traditionally, the right whales’ feeding grounds included the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin, which are determined to be their critical habitat.
In 2003, shipping lanes were rerouted in the Bay of Fundy to reduce the potential for ship collisions. It is estimated that the rerouting measures reduced the potential for ship collisions with right whales by 90%.3 However, as the whales have been appearing over the past years in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, scientists speculate that the whales may be shifting away from their traditional habitat to follow their food source.
Let’s Talk Whales
The Government of Canada has pledged to bring “absolutely every protection to bear” to prevent the deaths of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada are working closely to provide the resources necessary to protect them.
In 2017, Fisheries and Oceans Canada launched Let’s Talk Whales, an online public engagement initiative for Canadians to share ideas on the recovery efforts and priority actions to help the North Atlantic right whale, the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga and the Southern Resident killer whale.
Hundreds of groups, organizations, and individuals participated in public sessions across Canada. Several high-priority actions were identified to address and mitigate the key threats to the survival of these at-risk whales. This included threats such as underwater noise from ships, entanglements in fishing gear, and ship strikes.4
Monitoring North Atlantic right whales
Monitoring activities to learn more about the North Atlantic right whales, their travelling habits and patterns, and the areas in which they are most frequently found are key to putting effective measures in place to help protect them. Air surveillance, through the National Aerial Surveillance Program’s aircraft and drone, at-sea surveillance onboard Canadian Coast Guard vessels and acoustic technologies, such as underwater microphones (hydrophones) and gliders, are used to monitor and detect their movements along the Atlantic Coast and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
WhaleMap, an interactive web map that pulls together aerial, acoustic, and other important information provided by a variety of sources – organizations and government agencies – is also being used to monitor North Atlantic right whales. Developed as part of the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR) WHaLE project, and updated every five minutes, WhaleMap allows near real-time observations to be communicated to industrial, scientific, and regulatory stakeholders for better planning and measures to preserve the North Atlantic right whales.
Protecting North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters
In recent years, Canada has been working with marine researchers, the marine shipping industry, and non-governmental organizations to developed enhanced measures to better protect North Atlantic right whales, particularly between the months of April and November, when they migrate in and out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and are more commonly found in the area. Since 2017, seasonal protective measures have been implemented by the Canadian government in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to help prevent ship strikes, entanglements from ghost fishing gear, and to reduce the effects of underwater noise from ships.
2023 seasonal measures
The measures in place in 2023 are building on the success of the ones implemented over previous years during which no deaths of North Atlantic right whales were reported in Canadian waters.5
The vessel traffic management measures, in effect from April 19 to November 15, 2023, require that all vessels more than 13 metres in length restrict their speed to a maximum of 10 knots:
- Throughout much of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (northern and southern static zones in the map above).
- Temporarily in dynamic shipping zones (zones A, B, C, D, E in the map above) for 15 days following the detection of at least one North Atlantic right whale in or near the dynamic shipping zone.
- In two seasonal management areas (SMA) from April 19 to June 27 2023, and for 15 days if a North Atlantic right whale is detected in the area, from June 28 to November 15, 2023.
The mandatory restricted area in and near the Shediac Valley is reinstated in 2023. All vessels more than 13 metres in length must either avoid this zone or restrict speed to a maximum of 8 knots if transiting through it.
Vessels transiting through the Cabot Strait from April 19 to June 27, 2023 and from September 27 to November 15, 2023, are also asked to reduce their speed to no more than 10 knots, as part of a voluntary ship slowdown.6
The full list of the 2023 protective measures is available here.
Oversight and enforcement of protective measures
Transport Canada inspectors, with assistance from the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services, are responsible for the surveillance and enforcement of the measures in place. Non-compliance with speed limits and zones of restricted access can lead to fines of up to $250,000 or prosecution under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001.
Protective measures implemented in the past
Canada announced an updated plan, developed with interested stakeholders, to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales while sustaining and growing the ocean economy of eastern Canada.
The mandatory vessel slowdown when whales are present was reinstated and the government also provided $1 million in funding to support disentangling whales from fishing gear and develop new “whale safe” fishing technology.
Despite these protective measures, eight North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters during the 2019 season; one of these deaths was caused by an entanglement while another was caused by a collision with a vessel. The causes of the other six deaths were unknown.
Canada reinstated the mandatory speed restriction in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from late April to mid-November. No North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters in 2018.
Canada announced further measures for the protection of North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including a temporary mandatory slowdown for vessels of 20 metres or more in length to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island.
Impact of Underwater Noise on Marine Mammals (including North Atlantic Right Whales)
Review of the Effectiveness of Recovery Activities for North Atlantic Right Whales
Recovery Strategy for the North Atlantic Right Whale
Protecting North Atlantic right whales from ship strikes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
1 Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). (2023). All the News on North Atlantic Right Whales in 2022.
2 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2023). 2017-2023 North Atlantic Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event.
3 Canadian Whale Institute. (2022). Changing Marine Policy to Protect Right Whales.
4 Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2018). Engagement on the Science-Base Whale Review-A Summary of What Was Heard. Government of Canada.
5 Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2023). Transport Canada actions taken to date to protect North Atlantic right whales. Government of Canada.
6 Transport Canada. (2022). Protecting the North Atlantic Right Whale: Speed Restriction measures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – SSB No.: 09/2022. Government of Canada.
Published May 6, 2021
Last modified on April 21, 2023