(CN) — North Pacific right whales, the most endangered whales in the world, could gain an expanded protected habitat from Alaska to Baja California, if the feds approve after a one-year review now underway.
On Monday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries announced the review, a response to a petition filed this past March by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity and conservation group Save the North Pacific Right Whale — dedicated to increasing protections and awareness of the rare whale. They urged the federal government to revise the critical habitat designation for North Pacific right whales under the Endangered Species Act.
The North Pacific right whale is one of the largest and longest-living animals on the planet. Its population ranges from the Bering Sea to Baja California and is down to only about 30 individuals due to few surviving reproducing females, the center reports.
Right whales are slow swimmers and float to the surface when they die due to high amounts of blubber, baleen and oil — making them easy targets for whalers. The United States officially recognized the whales as being “threatened with worldwide extinction” in 1970, which was extended when Congress established the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
In 2008, the Fisheries Service issued a final rule designating about 1,175 square miles in the Gulf of Alaska and 35,460 square miles in the Southeast Bering Sea as critical habitat for North Pacific right whales. But the environmentalists say two key habitats are essential for this right whale population’s survival — a migratory corridor through the Fox Islands in the Aleutian chain, including Unimak Pass, and feeding grounds near Kodiak Island.
In their petition, the groups argued the government should connect the existing critical habitats by extending the Bering Sea unit boundary westward and southward to the Fox Islands, through Unimak Pass to the edge of the continental slope, and eastward to the Kodiak Island. This change would encompass a key migratory point for whales and connect their foraging grounds, the organizations said.
The groups also said that in the regions in question, North Pacific right whales are susceptible to shipping and other human-caused noise because they sing in patterns and songs to communicate. Shipping traffic, which is dramatically increasing in these areas, also poses a heightened risk of vessel strikes. In these regions, whales also face the affects of climate change on their habitat temperature and feeding grounds, frequent entanglements in fishing gear and risks of oil and gas spills.
The Fisheries’ report found the petitioners provided “substantial scientific information indicating that revision of critical habitat may be warranted.”
“At the time of designation, there were significant gaps in the knowledge of North Pacific right whale biology and ecology, and little was known about the physical and biological habitat features that might be essential for their conservation,” the report said. The agency said they have identified the whales’ diet of large copepods and other zooplankton, and said these species may be concentrated in the identified region at the right levels for foraging whales to feed.
For one year, the agency will study the region to determine if revising the critical habitat designation is warranted.
“Safeguarding the North Pacific right whale’s habitat is crucial to protecting these magnificent animals," the center’s senior scientist Kristin Carden said in a statement supporting the Fisheries’ announcement. "The threats to North Pacific right whales grow with each passing day.”
Kevin Campion, founder of Save the North Pacific Right Whale, said the organization supports the feds' survey efforts expanding data on how the whales use the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
“These whales are in the state they are because of human activity,” Campion said in a statement. “Taking steps to see that we cause them no more harm is the right thing to do.”
In a phone interview, Campion said his organization was “surprised by the decision.”
“It means that folks at NOAA are recognizing the plight of North Pacific right whales, and showing a willingness to do something about it.”
Alice Kaswan, professor and associate dean at University of San Francisco School of Law, said while this announcement does not mean the agency will agree with the petition’s demands, it does indicate “the door’s open” for similar petitions.
“The agency’s willingness to grant the petition shows it’s open to conducting the additional science to determine whether the additional land or ocean really should be set aside as critical habitat,” Kaswan said. “It’s an indication that this administration has a willingness to protect endangered species.”
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