Overview of catch history, historic abundance and distribution of right whales in the western North Atlantic and in Cintra Bay, West Africa

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Randall R. Reeves


The catch history of the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the western North Atlantic has been studied in a series of
projects. Data from European archives on early Basque whaling, centred in the Strait of Belle Isle, showed that there were at least a few
thousand right whales in the northern part of the range in the sixteenth century. Data from shore whaling in the eastern United States
supplemented by British customs data indicated that there were still more than a thousand right whales in the southern part of the range
(i.e. south from Nova Scotia) in the late seventeenth century. Right whales were depleted throughout the western North Atlantic by the
middle of the eighteenth century, but small shore whaling enterprises persisted in some areas and pelagic whalers continued to kill right
whales opportunistically. An increase in alongshore whaling occurred at Long Island (New York) beginning in the 1850s and in North and
South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida in the 1870s-1880s. By the start of the twentieth century only a few crews of shore whalers
remained active in Long Island and North Carolina, and their whaling efforts were desultory. All evidence points to stock depletion as the
primary reason for the demise of organised whaling for right whales in eastern North America. Recent sightings indicate that some right
whales travel from the Bay of Fundy and Scotian Shelf far to the north and east, at least occasionally reaching the historic Cape Farewell
Ground. Areas known to have been used regularly by right whales in the past (e.g. Gulf of St Lawrence, Delaware Bay) are now visited
seasonally by only a few individuals. Recent surveys of Cintra Bay, a historic right whale wintering ground in the eastern North Atlantic,
provided no evidence of continued use by right whales.

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