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Wildlife Advocates File Suit to Protect World's Most Endangered Whale
Despite being listed under the Endangered Species Act more than three decades ago, the North Atlantic right whale’s population still numbers only around 350 individual animals, making it one of the world’s most endangered whales.
“Each year, more whales are found wrapped in fishing gear or mortally wounded by ships,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The Humane Society of the United States. “Every whale – and every square mile of protected habitat – counts when the population is so low.”
The lawsuit challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service’s failure to respond to the groups’ 2009 legal petition seeking expanded critical habitat for the species under the Endangered Species Act. By law, the agency is required to take action on such a petition within 90 days.
“Critical habitat protections have a proven track record of helping endangered species to survive,” said Andrea Treece, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The North Atlantic right whale is on the edge of extinction, and further delay of habitat protection may seal the species’ fate.”
The groups’ petition seeks expanded protection for calving grounds off of Georgia and northern Florida, protection for critical feeding habitat off the Northeast, and protections for the migratory route between calving and feeding grounds. In areas designated as critical habitat, the federal government must take special precautions to ensure that activities such as oil drilling, commercial fishing, military training, and vessel traffic will not diminish the value of the habitat in a way that will impair the recovery of the species.
“The ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has shown that industrial activities in the ocean can affect not only the animals themselves, but the entire environment in which they live,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “A similar catastrophe off the east coast of Georgia or Florida could make uninhabitable the only place on earth that right whales give birth to their young. The government must consider such risks when deciding if and where to permit these types of activities.”
The primary threats to imperiled right whales are ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, habitat degradation, rising noise levels, 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 Regina Asmutis-Silvia, senior biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
- The lawsuit was filed in the District of Massachusetts federal court in Boston.
- The North Atlantic right whale population was decimated by centuries of commercial whaling, and despite being protected since 1970, has not recovered.
- Scientists estimate that if current trends continue, the population could go extinct in fewer than 200 years.
- The whales, reaching 55 feet in length, migrate from their calving grounds off the southeastern United States to their feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada. Adult female right whales reproduce slowly – they give birth to one calf every four years and do not reach reproductive maturity until age eight.
- Fishing gear entanglement and vessel strikes have killed or seriously injured at least 18 right whales since 2004.