(CN) — After a year of deliberation, the National Marine Fisheries Services on Monday announced its intention to expand critical habitat protections in Alaska for the endangered North Pacific right whale.
The announcement follows a 2022 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and Save the North Pacific Right Whale seeking to revise and expand the whales’ eastern population’s critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act — a move the federal agency had yet to make since redesignating nearly 37,000 square miles of critical habitat for the whales in 2008 within the Gulf of Alaska and the Southeast Bering Sea.
Although it received federal protections under the Endangered Species Act in 1970, the North Pacific right whale is now one the rarest large whales and most endangered marine mammal species in the world.
The National Marine Fisheries Services, also referred to as NOAA Fisheries, reports that in the absence of reliable estimates of the whales’ current population in the North Pacific, it believes there are likely fewer than 500 individuals left, with most sightings consisting of single whales.
In Alaskan waters, the numbers drop even lower to 30.
“I’m encouraged that North Pacific right whales may get these badly needed protections,” Cooper Freeman, the Center for Biological Diversity's Alaska representative, said in a statement. “There’s no time to waste in helping these whales, who are teetering right on the brink of extinction. We need to move fast and do everything we can to protect the places that are crucial to their survival.”
The agency explains in its 12-month findings that its decision to expand critical habitat arrived after gathering new information on the whales since 2008, including the discovery that the whale has been traveling outside its current critical habitat in the Shelikof Strait, along the Alaska Peninsula, north of Unimak Pass and near Kodiak Island and St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea.
“Given that the 2008 designation relied on right whale sightings as a proxy for the presence of the essential features for determining the critical habitat boundaries, the areas where North Pacific right whales have been sighted or detected in the last 15 years are likely candidates for critical habitat designation and will be considered further in conjunction with other available scientific information,” the agency said.
It added that several periods between 2013 and 2021 created substantial oceanic shifts in the North Pacific, including marine heatwaves and decreasing sea ice in the Bering Sea. Both factors play a role in the abundance and distribution of zooplankton that the right whales need to survive, and, as such, the tiny prey will significantly affect how the agency moves forward in its final revision.
“As one of the rarest whales on the planet, North Pacific right whales require a dedicated effort to recover,” Kevin Campion, boat captain and founder of Save the North Pacific Right Whale, said in a statement. “We’re grateful to NOAA for recognizing these areas are critical to the whale’s survival. Now it’s time to work toward a thriving North Pacific right whale population.”Follow @alannamayhampdx
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