BOSTON (CN) - Environmentalists say the federal government is playing games with the names of North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species. The Humane Society claims the National Marine Fisheries Service "apparently believes it somehow eliminated the North Atlantic right whale's critical habitat" through a 2008 rule that changed the species' common name from Northern right whale to the North Atlantic right whale, and that "therefore no designated critical habitat exists to revise."
The environmentalists claim the National Marine Fisheries Service ignored their petition to expand critical habitat for the whale.
The North Atlantic right whale spends the summer in feeding grounds off the coast of the Northeastern United States, and migrates to waters off the Southeastern coast for winter breeding.
Called the right whale because it was considered "right" for hunting, the species declined sharply due to overwhaling. Its population today is estimated at only 345, and continues to diminish as a result of fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes.
In 2004, the NMFS determined that "loss of even a single individual may contribute to the extinction of the species," and that "if current trends continue, the population could go extinct in less than 200 years."
The environmentalists say the agency "apparently believes it somehow eliminated the North Atlantic right whale's critical habitat" through a 2008 rule that changed the species' common name from the Northern right whale to the North Atlantic right whale, and that "therefore no designated critical habitat exists to revise."
This is patently false, the plaintiffs say, since the species has been listed as endangered under its Latin name, Eubalaena glacialis, since 1970. Critical habitat for the species from 1994 is still in effect, the groups say.
The name change process started in 2003 when the NMFS determined that North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are distinct. A rule defined three common names, including the Southern right whale, for the different populations.
The fisheries service stated that "all right whales are endangered," and that their habitats would remain protected. Although a draft right whale rule from 2006 indicated the agency's intent to list the species separately, the final rule, without explanation, dropped the species' scientific name and used the outdated common name, the lawsuit claims.
The fisheries service acknowledged receipt of the plaintiffs' 2009 petition to expand critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of Maine and off the coast of Florida, along with adding a migratory corridor in between, but has not responded otherwise, the whale advocates say.
Represented by Kimberly Okene in Auburndale, Mass., the groups seek declaratory judgment and other relief.
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