BOSTON— A coalition of environmental and animal protection groups has sued the federal government to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The suit seeks to significantly expand habitat protections, including all of the whale’s nursery, breeding and feeding grounds along the East Coast. It would expand the whale’s protected area more than tenfold, from roughly 4,000 square miles to more than 50,000 square miles. The Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Whale and Dolphin Conservation filed the case in federal court in Boston.
Only about 450 North Atlantic right whales exist today, making them one of the world’s most endangered large whales. Without additional protection, the species faces a serious risk of extinction.
“The National Marine Fisheries Service’s protracted failure to take action leaves whales vulnerable to injury and death in their most essential habitat areas. Protecting the right whale’s vital habitat is the most common sense step toward moving this species out of the emergency room and onto the path to recovery,” said Ralph Henry, senior attorney for The Humane Society of the United States.
Each year right whales migrate from their summer breeding and feeding area off the northeastern U.S. coast to the Southeast to give birth in the winter, and then return north. Yet only a tiny portion of these key areas is federally protected as “critical habitat.” Scientists have repeatedly acknowledged that current habitat boundaries are not protective enough and should be expanded, but the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency tasked with saving the species, has failed to take action.
The groups seek expanded protection for the whale’s calving grounds off Georgia and northern Florida, critical feeding habitat off the northeast coast and the mid-Atlantic migratory route between calving and feeding grounds. In areas designated as critical habitat, the federal government must ensure that activities including commercial fishing, vessel traffic and oil drilling will not diminish the value of the habitat or reduce the whale’s chance for recovery.
“Every year endangered right whales have to navigate a virtual obstacle course of threats on their migration south. The whales face an ocean dense with fishing nets, crisscrossed by speeding vessels and increasingly roaring with underwater noise. Protecting habitat protects whales,” said Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Despite numerous requests the Fisheries Service has consistently delayed protecting the whale’s full habitat. In 2009 the groups filed a formal legal petition to extend the right whale’s critical habitat, and in 2010 they sued after the Fisheries Service failed to respond. The agency then announced that critical habitat revision was indeed warranted and promised to propose revisions in the second half of 2011, yet it has taken no action.
“The Fisheries Service has dragged its feet for far too long, and right whales are paying the price. It’s this agency’s responsibility to protect the right whale, and that means ensuring that the marine habitat the right whale needs to survive and recover is secure. The Fisheries Service needs to get with the program and do its job so that the right whale can recover and thrive,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.
The primary threats to imperiled right whales are ship strikes and entanglement in commercial fishing gear. In response the group’s actions, the agency recognized these threats last year by issuing a rule requiring reduced ship speeds and agreeing to reconsider impacts of fisheries. But the whales are also seriously threatened by habitat degradation, rising noise levels, climate change, ocean acidification and pollution.
“If where you live is dangerous, then you’re not safe. And until their habitat is adequately protected, right whales are not safe and will not recover,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
North Atlantic right whales were devastated by commercial whaling in the 1700s. Despite being federally protected since 1970, they have not recovered due to continuing threats. Fishing gear entanglement and vessel strikes have killed or seriously injured at least 23 right whales since 2004.
The whales can reach 55 feet in length. Adult female right whales reproduce slowly, giving birth to one calf every four years on average, and they do not reach reproductive maturity until age 8.