North Atlantic right whale foraging ecology and its role in human-caused mortality Academic Article uri icon


  • Endangered North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis suffer from unacceptably high rates of ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, but little is known of the role that diving and foraging behavior plays in mediating human-caused mortality. We conducted a study of right whale foraging ecology by attaching tags to whales for short periods of time (hours), tracking their movements during daytime, and repeatedly sampling oceanographic conditions and prey distribution along the whales’ tracks. Right whales were tagged from late winter to late fall in 6 regions of the Gulf of Maine and southwestern Scotian Shelf from 2000 to 2010. The diving behavior of the tagged whales was governed by the vertical distribution of their primary prey, the copepod Calanus finmarchicus. On average, right whales tagged during spring spent 72% of their time in the upper 10 m (within the draft of most large commercial vessels), indicating the need for expanded ship speed restrictions in western Gulf of Maine springtime habitats. One out of every 4 whales dove to within 5 m of the sea floor during the short time they were tagged, spending as much as 45% of their total tagged time in this depth stratum. Right whales dove to the sea floor in each habitat studied except for one (where only 1 whale was tagged). This relatively high incidence of near-bottom diving raises serious concerns about the continued use of floating ground lines in pot and trap gear in coastal Maine and Canadian waters.

publication date

  • October 13, 2017