Current Species Status: The North Pacific right whale, Eubalaena japonica, is among the rarest of all large whale species. The Northern right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, was listed under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969, and remained on the list of threatened and endangered species after the passage of the ESA in 1973 (35 FR 18319, December 2, 1970). In 2008, NMFS reclassified the Northern right whale as two separate endangered species, North Pacific right whale (E. japonica) and North Atlantic right whale (E. glacialis) (73 FR 12024, March 6, 2008).
Past commercial whaling decimated North Pacific right whale populations, with the species likely numbering fewer than 1,000 individuals. This Recovery Plan identifies two populations of North Pacific right whales. The eastern population is located primarily in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, with an estimated historical seasonal migration range extending from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in the north down the west coast of the United States to Baja California in the south. The eastern population is estimated to consist of approximately 30 individuals. The western population is located primarily in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Russia, Japan, and China. Its estimated historical seasonal migration range extends from the Okhotsk Sea and northwards to the coasts of China and Vietnam to the south. The western population is estimated to consist of approximately 900 individuals.
Right whale sightings have been very rare (notably in the east) and geographically scattered, leading to persistent uncertainty and data gaps. Small populations and rarity of sightings make it very difficult to estimate current range, habitat use, and population parameters. Therefore, a primary goal of this Recovery Plan is to gain more data needed for effective management.
Habitat Requirements and Limiting Factors: The North Pacific right whale populations have been legally protected from commercial whaling for the past several decades, and this protection continues. Although the main direct threat to North Pacific right whales was addressed by the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling, several potential threats remain. Among the current potential threats are environmental contaminants, the potential for reduced prey abundance or location due to climate change, the potential for increased risk of ship collisions, and exposure to anthropogenic noise corresponding with use of the Arctic for energy development and commercial maritime traffic, which may increase as climate change makes the Arctic more accessible for longer periods of the year. The most significant threat to the eastern population is its extremely small population size, posing a heightened risk for biological extinction if individuals are lost to ship strikes or other threats.
Recovery Strategy: This plan identifies measures to protect, promote, and monitor the recovery of North Pacific right whale populations. Because the most significant historical threat to North Pacific right whales (whaling) is being addressed, and there is a paucity of population data for the species, the primary component of this recovery program is data collection. The collection of additional data will facilitate estimating population size, monitoring trends in abundance, and determining population structure. These data will also provide greater understanding of natural and anthropogenic threats to the species. Key elements of the recovery program for this species are 1) coordinate state, federal, and international actions to maintain whaling prohibitions; 2) estimate population size and monitor trends in abundance; 3) determine North Pacific right whale occurrence, distribution, and range; 4) identify, characterize, protect, and monitor habitat essential to North Pacific right whale recovery; 5) investigate the impact of human-caused threats on North Pacific right whales.
Recovery Goals and Criteria: The goal of this recovery plan is to promote the recovery of North Pacific right whales to the point at which they can be removed from the list of endangered and threatened Wildlife and Plants under the provisions of the ESA. The intermediate goal is to reach a sufficient recovery status to reclassify the species from endangered to threatened.
The recovery criteria presented in this Recovery Plan were based on the Report of the Workshop on Developing Recovery Criteria for Large Whales Species (Angliss et al. 2002). Workshop objectives were to develop (a) a general framework for the development of recovery criteria that would be applicable to most marine mammal species, large whale species in particular, and (b) specific criteria that can be used to apply the framework to specific populations. A major goal was to use North Pacific and North Atlantic right whales as case studies, and to develop a specific set of recovery criteria which could be used for these populations.
Downlisting Criteria: North Pacific right whales will be considered for reclassifying from endangered to threatened when both of the following are met:
- Given current and projected threats and environmental conditions, each North Pacific right whale population (eastern and western) satisfies the risk analysis standard for threatened status (has no more than a 1% chance of extinction in 100 years) and the global population has at least 1,500 mature, reproductive individuals (consisting of at least 250 mature females and at least 250 mature males in each ocean basin). Mature is defined as the number of individuals known, estimated, or inferred to be capable of reproduction. Any factors or circumstances that substantially contribute to a real risk of extinction but cannot be incorporated into a Population Viability Analysis will be carefully considered before downlisting takes place.
- None of the known threats to North Pacific right whales limit the continued growth of populations. Specifically, the factors in section 4(a)(l) of the ESA are being or have been addressed: (A) the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of a species’ habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational, or educational purposes; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and E) other natural or manmade factors (there are no criteria for Factor C, disease or predation).
It is important to emphasize that North Pacific right whales will be considered for downlisting only when all criteria are met globally—minimum abundance level is met, risk analysis standard for threatened status (has no more than a 1% chance of extinction in 100 years) has been satisfied, and all known threats have been addressed.
Delisting Criteria: North Pacific right whales will be considered for removal from the list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants under the provisions of the ESA when both of the following are met:
- Given current and projected threats and environmental conditions, each North Pacific right whale population (eastern and western) satisfies the risk analysis standard for unlisted status (has less than a 10% probability of becoming endangered (as defined above) in 20 years). Any factors or circumstances that are thought to substantially contribute to a real risk of extinction that cannot be incorporated into a Population Viability Analysis will be carefully considered before delisting takes place.
- None of the known threats to North Pacific right whales are known to limit the continued growth of populations. Specifically, all the factors in section 4(a)(l) of the ESA have been addressed: (A) the present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of a species’ habitat or range; (B) overutilization for commercial, recreational or educational purposes; (C) disease or predation; (D) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and (E) other natural or manmade factors.
Anticipated Date of Recovery: The time and cost to recovery is not predictable with the current information on North Pacific right whales. The difficulty in gathering data and the extremely small abundance of eastern North Pacific right whales make it impossible to give a timeframe to recovery for this species. While we estimate costs for some recovery actions, any projections of total costs to accomplish recovery would be imprecise and unrealistic. Therefore, for ongoing actions we have estimated only costs for the next 50 years, as it is expected that recovery would take at least that long. Currently it is impossible to predict when the protections provided by the ESA will no longer be warranted. In the future, as more information is obtained, it should be possible to make better informed projections about the time for recovery and its expense.
Estimated Cost of Recovery Actions (First 50 Fiscal Years): $17.183 Million