The Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal government earlier this year, accusing the National Marine Fisheries Service of not following through on a 2016 plan to designate two groups of Pacific Ocean humpback whales as endangered and a third group as threatened.
One group that feeds off the coast near California includes around 400 whales who are listed as endangered and face injury or death from fishing gear and other hazards.
In their Northern District of California lawsuit, the center said the federal government “has not made a critical habitat determination (i.e., proposing to designate critical habitat or finding that it would not be prudent to do so) for the Western North Pacific, Mexico, and Central America” populations of humpback whales.
The lawsuit said whales are also in danger from oil spills, being struck by boats and other hazards in the ocean. They called the federal government’s lack of action a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, his administration has announced plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling across the United States, including the West Coast and Alaska.
The center filed a similar lawsuit against state of California claiming fishing lines, crab traps and other gear endangered whales along the Pacific Coast.
On Friday, the parties announced a settlement that would establish critical habitat protections for whale populations in the western North Pacific, Mexico and Central America by 2020. The agreement includes a timeline, beginning with a proposal to the Federal Register by June 2019, for the fisheries service to determine critical habitat.
The environmentalists also asked the judge to dismiss the case.
The federal government agreed to pay $10,000 in attorney fees to the center, which was joined in the action by environmental advocacy groups Turtle Island Restoration Network and Wishtoyo Foundation.
“Today’s victory means Pacific humpback whales will be safer in their ocean home,” said Center for Biological Diversity attorney Catherine Kilduff in a statement. “While delaying these protections, the Trump administration proposed opening the Pacific up to offshore oil drilling and let fishing gear tangle up dozens of humpbacks. This agreement ensures the whales will finally get the protections they need.”
The fisheries service declined to comment.