Feds Tap 300,000 Square Miles of Pacific for Humpback Whales

(CN) – Migrating humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean got a bit of good news Tuesday as the Trump administration announced the designation of over 300,000 square nautical miles as new critical habitat to protect from ship traffic, oil spills and fishing gear.

The proposed rule is the result of a settlement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, who were sued last year for not following through on a 2016 plan to designate two groups of Pacific Ocean humpback whales as endangered and a third group as threatened.

The Center for Biological Diversity, joined by Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Wishtoyo Foundation, filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California claiming the lack of action by the Trump administration violated the Endangered Species Act.

On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries Service announced a proposed rule that would designate habitat protection for the endangered groups identified as the Western North Pacific and Central America populations.

The rule would also extend to the threatened Mexico population, encompassing an area of approximately 176,000 square nautical miles in the North Pacific Ocean including portions of Bristol Bay, the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and California Current Ecosystem, a coastal biome research site funded by the National Science Foundation.

Last year, the Trump administration announced plans to open the waters off the coast of California and other regions of the country to offshore drilling. Along with fatal ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, oil spills pose some of the largest hazards to migrating humpback whales who can travel up to 3,000 miles from feeding grounds on the West Coast to Hawaii and Japan.

Todd Steiner of the Turtle Island Restoration Network said the proposed habitats will give an added layer of protection, because oil drilling applications will need to be reviewed by various agencies for final approval.

That added layer is not a guarantee but gives environmental groups another tool to challenge applications.

“In the last few years, our work has become more a defensive nature,” Steiner said in an interview. “Now, we’re preventing rollbacks on protections for endangered species and trying to maintain what we already have in place.”

Attorney Catherine Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity called designating habitats the heart and soul of the Endangered Species Act, because they’re put into action where animals live and travel.

Over the next two months during the public comment period it’s going to be important to hold the federal government to keeping the proposed nautical miles in place and not trim them down, said Kilduff.

“We’re optimistic when critical habitat is identified, because we saw endangered populations of humpbacks delisted in 2016,” Kilduff said in an interview.

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