BOSTON— The National Marine Fisheries Service announced today that it will expand critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales, which are clinging to survival with fewer than 400 individuals remaining. The action comes in response to a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Humane Society of the United States.
“Protecting key calving and migration habitat is essential to the continued survival of this species,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a staff attorney with the Center. “With a population of only 400 animals, every whale — and every square mile of protected habitat — counts.”
The lawsuit challenged the agency’s failure to respond to the wildlife groups’ August 2009 petition, which sought to expand current critical habitat protections because areas located off the coast of New England and the Georgia-Florida border are inadequate to recover the whales. The government’s announcement today confirmed the need to expand protected areas; the agency will propose new boundaries next year.
“Critical habitat ensures precautions are taken when potentially dangerous activities like oil drilling and commercial shipping are being planned and carried out,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Because these animals share our busy Atlantic coastal waters, we need to make sure that risky activities in the places they call home aren’t going to hinder their ability to return to a sustainable population.”
“You can’t protect a species without also protecting what it needs to survive,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. “Current critical habitat boundaries are akin to protecting our children in certain areas of their schools and specific rooms in their homes with no protection for them as they move between home and school. What we need is full protection in the areas where right whales feed, calve and the migratory route between those areas.”
“We are delighted the administration is moving to protect critical habitat for right whales without further delay,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at The Humane Society of the United States. “This is a crucial step forward on the path to recovery for one of the world’s most endangered animals.”
- Right whales migrate from their calving grounds off the southeastern United States to their feeding grounds off the Northeast and Canada. Adult females reproduce slowly, reaching reproductive maturity around age eight and giving birth to one calf every four years.
- The only known calving ground for North Atlantic right whales is off the coast of Georgia and Florida, with documented births outside of the area currently designated as critical habitat. In 2008, 18 of 19 newborn calves documented were in areas just outside the protected zone.
- Each year female right whales die from being hit by ships or entanglement in commercial fishing gear in unprotected areas. In one 18-month period, three pregnant females and their full-term young died after being hit by ships outside their critical habitat.
- Although the Endangered Species Act requires that the government respond to petitions within 90 days of their receipt, the Fisheries Service did not respond to the August 2009 petition until this week, after a lawsuit was filed to compel the agency’s response.