Balaenidae: Right Whales
Balaenidae, the right whale family, consists of two genera, Eubalaena (the Right Whales) and Balaena (the Bowhead Whale).
The story of their name gets retold as often the subject of right whales is broached. It starts with the fact that they were the right whales to suit the commercial needs of the day, oil and whalebone.
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Types of Whales
A U.S. Fish Commission Report for 1902 computed the oil yields for different whales in terms of barrels of oil (31 1/2 gallons/barrel) with the Balaenidae taking the top three spots, doubling the average yield of the rest of the group:
- Right Whale (Pacific) 25 to 250 (average 90)
- Right Whale (Atlantic) 25 to 150 (average 75)
- Bowhead Whale 30 to 250 (average 100)
- Sperm Whale 5 to 145 (average 45)
- Humpback Whale (Pacific) 10 to 110 (average 42)
- Humpback Whale (Atlantic) 10 to 100 (average 40)
- Finback (Pacific) 10 to 70 (average 35)
- Finback (Atlantic) 20 to 60 (average 38)
- California Gray Whale 20 to 60 (average (40)
- Bottlenose Whale 4 to 25 (average 12)
- Orca (Killer Whale) 1 to 6 (average 2 1/2)
The Balaenidae high oil density corresponds to both their size (fifty feet in length) and their need for a thick layer of blubber to protect them in their cold water habitats. The Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus), for example, has a range limited to the seas in and around the Arctic Ocean. While Right Whales breed in temperate waters, they return to cold water habitats to live out their lives, although it's still a mystery where most spend their winters.
In comparison to the small headed rorquals, the large headed Balaenidae also produced larger baleen plates than other whales, which commanded a high price for use in products such as buggy whips and skirt hoops.
Three different Eugalaena species are recognized: North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis); North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica); and the Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis).
The North Atlantic Right Whale, a denizen of the waters off of the East Coast of the United States, is the most endangered species, with a population of around three hundred individuals. The Brake for North Atlantic Right Whales provides additional information on policies intended to help improve their survival chances.
The IUCN reports that population levels for the North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica) barely exceed the North Atlantic population, although the data is dated and in need of updating. They are listed as endangered.
Current reports on Southern right whale populations paint a brighter scenario. The lack of land barriers in their southern circumpolar habitat may offer the species more breathing room and feeding opportunities, allowing for a slow but steady population recovery. In the past twenty years, they have moved from a vulnerable to a least concern IUCN listing.
Guesstimates regarding the future for right whales needs to be couched in cautionary terms. Climate spurred changes in ocean ecology could have positive or negative effects on population levels depending on how it affects their food sources and breeding habits. A recent Southern Right Whale study, for example, found "a strong relationship between right whale calving output and SST anomalies at South Georgia in the autumn of the previous year and also with mean El Nino 4 SST anomalies delayed by 6 years."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) division of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently published revised guidelines for ship traffic management in Northern Right Whale territory.
Among the guidelines is a request that ships hit their brakes, and travel at a speed of no greater than 10 knots, when they come within 20 nautical miles of their East Cost port destinations that coincide with the whale's range. The original guidelines requested a 30 nautical mile range.
In addition to strikes by ships, right whales are endangered by potential entanglements in lobster lines and other fishing gear.
Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus), often called the Greenland Right Whale, is the sole representative of its genus in the right whale family (Balaenidae).
Five different stocks of bowhead whales, the great whales of the circumpolar northern oceans, live along the northeast and northwest areas of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The numbers on the map at the top of the page correspond with the numbers on the list and move in a semi-counterclockwise motion around the map.
- Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin (Canada)
- Davis Strait-Baffin Bay (Denmark (Greenland) and Canada)
- Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) (Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and Russian Federation)
- Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (US (Alaska), Canada, and Russian Federation)
- Okhotsk Sea (Russian Federation and Japan)
© 2013. Patricia A. Michaels