One of the largest mammals on earth, the North Atlantic right whale spends part of the year off the Massachusetts coast. Right whales concentrate in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel east of Nantucket Island in small numbers from December to March, and in larger numbers in April and May. These waters contain dense concentrations of copepods and other zooplankton, staples in their diet. Instead of teeth, the right whale has baleen plates made of keratin instead of teeth, which filter, sift, sieve, or trap prey from seawater inside their mouths. The rich foraging grounds of the Massachusetts waters allow the right whale to grow up to 75 tons (150,000 pounds).
Right whales reproduce during the summer months off the coasts of Georgia and Florida coast. They can live to at least 50 years old, with cause of death usually due to human-caused mortality, not old age. Females give birth to their first calf at 10 years of age, after a gestation period lasting approximately 12 months.
Threats to the North Atlantic Right Whale
Like many whale species, the North Atlantic right whale was hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial whalers by the beginning of the 20th century. Since 1970, North Atlantic right whales have been listed as endangered under the federal and Massachusetts Endangered Species Acts. Researchers estimate there are fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales left, with fewer than 100 breeding females.
With whale hunting no longer a threat, other kinds of human-caused mortality are now the biggest causes of population declines. Entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, habitat degradation, ocean noise, and climate change are all threatening the survival of the North Atlantic right whale. Warmer oceans have changed prey locations and therefore have changed the distribution channels of the right whale, resulting in whales traveling in areas with fewer protections from vessel strikes and entanglements.
North Atlantic Right Whales in Massachusetts
In early 2021, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Commission passed regulations with the goal of dramatically reducing the risk to right whales from lobster pot and gillnet buoy lines.
These regulations are particularly focused on minimizing the risk of interaction between fisheries, vessel activity, and right whales. The Division of Marine and Fisheries (DMF) regulations include a February 1 through April 30 seasonal closure of all Massachusetts waters to trap gear fishing; a January 1 through May 15 closure of Cape Cod Bay and certain adjacent waters to gillnet gear; and a March 1 through April 30 speed limit for small vessels operating in Cape Cod Bay and certain adjacent waters. DMF also regulated buoy line marking for gillnets and trap gear and restricted the issuance of lobster and trap fishing permits.
FUN FACT: The first Thursday of May is Massachusetts Whale Awareness Day!
Whale and Other Marine Mammal Strandings
If you come across a stranded whale (alive or dead) on a Massachusetts beach, please call one of the following numbers:
For Cape Cod: 508-743-9548, IFAW Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
For areas near Boston: 617-973-5247, New England Aquarium
For all other areas: 978-281-9300, National Marine Fisheries Service, Gloucester
Be prepared to provide the following information:
- Name and contact number
- Location of animal with detailed description and nearby landmarks, if possible
- Number, size, and type of animal
- Any other helpful information such as behavior or tidal cycle
In the Headlines:
State passes new right whale protections, Cape Cod Times. January 28, 2021.
As their population plummets, right whales are on verge of extinction, Boston Globe. October 26, 2020.
As North Atlantic right whales slide toward extinction, a desperate search for hope, Boston Globe. February 9, 2020.