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Feds Extend Critical Habitat for Right Whales

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service has dramatically extended critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales, further protecting crucial breeding and feeding grounds. The agency cited the availability of new information from 35 years of aircraft and ship borne surveys as the basis for the new designation.

"With two decades of new information and improved understanding since we first designated critical habitat for the species, we believe the expansion will further protect essential foraging and calving areas to further improve recovery of this animal," Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said.

However, conservation groups maintain their efforts, both through the petition process, and through legal action, spurred the agency to expand the critical habitat designation for the whales. The new designation is more than six and a half times the former area.

A coalition of environmental and animal protection groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), sued the agency in April 2014 after previous attempts to prompt action had been unsuccessful. The groups petitioned the agency in 2009, and then sued in 2010 when the agency did not respond. The resulting agency promises to propose habitat revisions in 2011 did not materialize, the groups claimed.

"Right whales are at an extinction crossroads right now; Entanglement in fishing gear, shipping and offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic pose serious risks to their survival. The new rule takes critical steps by protecting the whale's northern feeding areas and southern calving grounds, but unfortunately it ignores the whale's migratory route between the two areas," Sarah Uhlemann, CBD senior attorney, said. The whales migrate twice a year.

The 2009 petition requested a more than tenfold increase in the North Atlantic whales' protected area more, to more than 50,000 square nautical miles. The new rule expands the protection from 4,536 square nautical miles to 29,763 square nautical miles, in two sectors. The summer foraging area is off the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, while the winter calving area is off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

Right whales were nearly driven to extinction by the whaling trade. Because they have a thick layer of blubber that causes them to float when dead, they were the "right" whales for whalers, the agency said. These surface skimming baleen whales are the rarest of all large whale species, with just 500 whales in the North Atlantic. They weigh up to 70 tons and the larger females can grow up to 50 feet long.

Northern right whales were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and then listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, with critical habitat not designated until 1994. In 2008, the agency divided the Northern classification into the North Pacific right whale, and the North Atlantic right whale, and listed them both as endangered species. Despite these protections, the whales' recovery has been hampered by ship strikes, fishing gear entanglements, habitat destruction, contaminants and climate change.

"We are thrilled that most of their feeding and calving habitats are finally being recognized as critical habitat. However, the notable absence of protections for the migratory corridor that connects these two habitats remains a concern," Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC executive director, said. "We should be safe when we commute between work and home, and right whales should be safe during their commute between their feeding and calving grounds."

The critical habitat designation means that project managers for activities that are conducted, permitted or funded by federal agencies in those areas are required to work with NOAA's fisheries service to reduce impacts on the habitat. It does not create preserves or refuges or other restrictions that directly affect the public, the agency said.

"We're making significant progress in reversing the population decline of the species, and are seeing signs of recovery, up to about 500 animals from the estimated 300 in 1994. But we still have a long way to get to complete recovery," Sobeck said.

The critical habitat designation is effective Feb. 26.

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