Back from the brink?
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — The National Marine Fisheries Service last week announced it will prepare a recovery plan for endangered North Pacific right whales, one of the most endangered animals on Earth.
Bringing the cetacean back from the brink of extinction won’t be easy — by most estimates, there are only about 30 right whales in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska and perhaps several hundred in the Sea of Okhotsk.
Right whales are so named because during the whaling era, they were a prime target, considered the “right” whale to hunt. Unlike other cetaceans, they haven’t been able to bounce back yet from the whaling slaughter. Collisions with ships is one of the biggest threats facing the whales.
The decision to develop a recovery plan came after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue. At the same time, the federal agency said it will update an outdated recovery plan for endangered blue whales, the largest animals on Earth.
Blue whales are also among the more endangered of the large whales, with a population of about 1,700 animals occurring along the U.S. West Coast and smaller populations in the Atlantic and Southern oceans.
“The Fisheries Service is finally throwing North Pacific right whales a lifeline,” said the Center for Biological Diversity Alaska director Rebecca Noblin. “With just a few dozen of these animals left in Alaska, there’s no question they need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act to have a chance of survival.”
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fisheries Service is required to issue and implement a plan for the conservation and recovery of all ocean species listed by the Act. North Pacific right whales have been listed as “northern right whales” since 1973 and since 2008 as a species in their own right, but these critically endangered animals have had no recovery plan. On March 20 the Center sent the Fisheries Service a formal notice of intent to sue the agency for failing to protect the whales.
“Recovery plans are crucial tools for saving species from extinction and recovering them to the point that they don’t need federal help anymore,” said Noblin. “And species with these plans are far more likely to be recovering than species without them.”
North Pacific right whales numbered as many as 20,000 before the advent of commercial whaling. Today the few remaining individuals are extremely vulnerable to ship strikes, oil development and spills, and entanglement in fishing gear.With so few in existence, the loss of even one whale could threaten the entire population.
A previous blue whale recovery plan was prepared in 1998, but many key provisions have not been implemented. Any new plan must take bold action to address the threat of ship strikes, which have killed many whales in recent years: In 2007 alone, five blue whales died from ship strikes in Southern California.
Read more about the Center’s campaign to protect North Pacific right whales.