Sighting of Juvenile North Pacific Right Whale Raises NOAA Hopes for Species

NOAA Fisheries scientist Jessica Crance
NOAA Fisheries scientist Jessica Crance tracks whale sighting data. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.

The discovery of a juvenile whale named “Phoenix” by NOAA Fisheries biologists, has renewed hope for the survival of this critically endangered eastern North Pacific right whale population.

A report on right whale research released by NOAA Fisheries on Monday, Nov. 29, credits NOAA Fisheries scientist Jessica Crance and her work with an international team searching for one of the world’s rarest large whales.

Phoenix is estimated to be between 1.5 and 4 years old.

The research, already published in marine science journals, tells how researchers over the summers of 2017 and 2018, photographed and identified a total of 15 individual North Pacific right whales, four of them documented for the first time, and one determined to be a juvenile. The whales were spotted during the International Whaling Commission’s Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research cruises surveying remote Alaska waters.

Scientists led by Koji Matsuoka of Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research used a combination of passive acoustics and visual surveying to detect and locate right whales. In a population of just dozens of these North Pacific right whales, finding 15 of them is remarkable, Crance said.

“But discovering the juvenile was the best news,” she remarked. “It’s the biggest sign of hope we have that there is at least one female still reproducing out there – that this population may yet have the ability to recover.”

Right whales once were found across the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in abundant numbers. Whalers gave them their name because they are slow, rich in oil and float when killed, making them the “right” whales to hunt. However, extensive whaling in the early 19th and 20th centuries decimated the population of the North Pacific right whale.

After commercial whaling ended their population began to recover. Then in the 1960s illegal Soviet whaling killed over 770 whales, bringing them to the brink of extinction. In 1970, the North Pacific right whale was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Today, the eastern population of North Pacific right whales numbers about 31, of which only about 10 females are thought to exist.

Crane is also documenting the singing of eastern North Pacific right whales, the first time anyone has recorded right whale song.