Enormous, gentle, and playful, right whales have had the misfortune of being defined, even named, according to their value as hunted rather than living creatures. Whalers named the species thinking that these were the “right whales” to kill because they're slow swimmers, they swim within sight of shore, and their carcasses float.

Right whales were hunted for oil, meat, and apparel materials — for corset stays, umbrella ribs, and buggy whips — until the early 20th century. Once abundant, the North Pacific right whale is now the most endangered whale in the world.


The Center has been leading an international fight to protect critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale since 2000. In that year, we formally requested that the National Marine Fisheries Service protect the whale's critical habitat as required by the Endangered Species Act. After putting up with years of agency inaction and delay, the Center was forced to sue the Fisheries Service to insure habitat protection. In 2006, the agency designated critical habitat for North Pacific right whales in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

But threats to the whales in Alaska are mounting in many areas. Trans-Arctic shipping traffic, for example, is surging as climate change and melting sea ice open shipping routes, increasing ocean noise and risks of vessel strikes. So in 2022 the Center and allies petitioned the federal government to expand Alaska critical habitat to cover those areas.

Though the North Pacific right whale has been considered officially endangered for almost 40 years, it long shared its Endangered Species Act listing with the North Atlantic right whale, thus not receiving the individual recognition and protection it deserved. But in 2008, in response to the Center's 2005 petition and 2006 lawsuit, the Service listed the whale as endangered as a distinct species, significantly increasing the species' legal protection and triggering requirements to prepare a recovery plan — which was finally published in 2013, after much Center pressure — and take other measures for the species' conservation.

The Center also helps the whale by fighting threats it faces, including ocean noise, ship strikes and oil and gas development. A 2010 Center lawsuit, for example, helped cancel an oil and gas lease sale in Alaska's Bristol Bay, within the North Pacific right whale's critical habitat.

Check out our press releases to learn more about the Center's actions for North Pacific right whales.

Photo of North Pacific right whale courtesy John Durban/USFWS.