Earlier this week, conservation and animal welfare groups filed a formal request to expand protected habitat for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The petition, filed with the National Marine Fisheries Service, demonstrates scientific support for expanding existing critical habitat in areas that are essential to feeding, mating, calving, nursing and migration for the fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining in existence.
NMFS has publicly stated that the death of a single right whale may contribute to the species' extinction. Researchers predict right whales are certain to go extinct if the current rate of mortality and serious injury continues. However, saving just two female right whales a year could put the species on a positive path for recovery.
"Every single right whale counts when it comes to ensuring this species' survival," said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The Humane Society of the United States. "Protecting the right whale's vital feeding, nursery and migratory habitat is the most basic, common-sense step toward moving this species out of the emergency room and onto the path to recovery."
The groups charge that current critical habitat boundaries are inadequate to provide for the survival and recovery of one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Once an area is designated as critical habitat, federal agencies must ensure that their actions will not adversely modify or destroy such habitat.
"Saying you're protecting right whales without sufficiently protecting their habitat is akin to saying you are going to protect sunfish while you drain the pond," said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, senior biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "Without protecting the places where right whales live, we cannot, in reality, save the species."
"Expanding critical habitat for right whales will ensure that we make intelligent, well-informed decisions about how we use and share our country's marine resources," said Sierra Weaver, attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. "This isn't about walling off the ocean, but rather about looking closely at the impacts of our actions on one of our most iconic wildlife species."
The groups request that three areas used by North Atlantic right whales for essential life functions be added as critical habitat. The petition seeks to expand critical habitat in the whales' only known calving grounds off the coast of northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and in the whales' feeding and nursery grounds throughout the Gulf of Maine. The petition also calls for adding the migration route between the calving and wintering grounds as critical habitat.
"The current critical habitat designated for right whales only protects bits and pieces of the most essential feeding and nursery habitat for the species, and doesn't protect migratory habitat at all," said Andrea Treece, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "If we're going to save the right whale, we have to provide a way for right whale mothers to safely shepherd their young between feeding and nursery grounds."
Despite being listed as endangered since the early 1970s, right whales continue to face serious threats throughout their range. Fishing gear entanglement and vessel strikes are the two most significant threats, killing or injuring at least 18 whales since 2004. Other threats include noise from vessel traffic, marine construction and sonar; offshore energy development; global warming; ocean acidification; and pollution.
"In an increasingly busy ocean, the survival and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale depends on the protection of its essential habitat areas," said Vicki Cornish, director of Marine Wildlife Policy with Ocean Conservancy. "Our demand for ocean resources is increasing, and we must consider the impact we have on the animals that call the ocean home. Protecting the most vital places for the survival of the North Atlantic right whale will help protect the species for generations to come."
The Endangered Species Act requires NMFS to respond to the groups' request within 90 days.
The petition for expanded right whale critical habitat was filed on behalf of The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Ocean Conservancy and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
The North Atlantic right whale is a critically endangered marine animal once hunted to near extinction by whalers. The population has struggled to recover, and now fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales remain.
Adult female right whales reproduce slowly — they give birth to one calf every three to four years and do not reach reproductive maturity until age 8.
Maps of the proposed critical habitat areas are available from the media contacts.
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