Feds expand critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales

New protection to aid recovery of rare marine mammals

NOAA has expanded critical habitat for endangered North American right whales. Photo courtesy NOAA.
NOAA has expanded critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Staff Report

North Atlantic right whales will have a little more protection off the East Coast, as NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service expanded critical habitat to cover feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank region and southeast calving grounds from North Carolina to Florida.

The expansion does not include any new restrictions or management measures for commercial fishing operations, but it would require more extensive review of any proposed activities in the region.According to NOAA, the expansion is based on 35 years of aircraft and ship borne surveys of right whale distribution, as well as research into foraging and prey availability.

“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,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “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.”

The federal agency’s decision came in response to efforts by conservation and wildlife protection groups. Only about 500 of the critically endangered whales exist today, and without additional protections the species faces a serious risk of extinction. In 2009, several groups petitioned the NMFS for more protection, a process that eventually ended up in court.

“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,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

North Atlantic right whales were devastated by commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite being federally protected as an endangered species since 1970, the species has not recovered due to continuing threats. Right whales have very low reproductive rates — they do not reach reproductive maturity until age eight, and adult females only give birth to one calf every four years on average.

For more information on right whales, visit: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/north-atlantic-right-whale.html

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