Less than 200 years ago, North Pacific right whales were frequently seen along the Pacific Rim. Commercial whaling severely depleted the population of North Pacific right whales beginning in the 19th century and continuing into the 1970’s. Today the eastern population of North Pacific right whales is critically endangered-- considered by many to be the most endangered whale population on Earth. While they are no longer hunted, the whales are impacted by human activities exacerbated by their small population size.
Because seeing these whales was rare after the 1870s, the scientific community knows little about them, including basics of habitat use and distrubution. Funding is limited and research is logistically challenging. This makes the full extent of human activities currently affecting the whales difficult to determine. Photo identification of North Pacific right whales indicates that 70% of whales have scars from entanglement in marine debris or commercial fishing gear. The NOAA Fisheries Recovery Plan for the North Pacific Right Whale outlines threats to these whales, which include climate and ecosystem change, vessel interactions, ship noise, oil and gas exploration, military sonar and explosives, contaminants and pollutants.