For Immediate Release, March 6, 2008
Contact: Brendan Cummings, 760-366-2232, x 304
World’s Most Endangered Whale Receives New Legal Protection:
North Pacific Right Whale Remains Threatened by
Proposed Oil Development in Bering Sea
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.— In response to petitions and litigation from the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government today formally declared the North Pacific right whale “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act. The North Pacific right whale, once ranging from California to Alaska and across the North Pacific to Russia and Japan, is now the most endangered large whale in the world. Perhaps fewer than 50 individuals remain in a population that visits the Bering Sea each summer to feed.
Devastated by commercial whaling, North Pacific right whales now face the additional threat of oil and gas development in their critical habitat. The Department of the Interior last year proposed opening up areas in the Bering Sea near Bristol Bay frequented by the species to offshore oil development.
“Drilling in Bristol Bay would be drilling through the heart of the most important habitat of the most endangered whale on the planet,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the North Pacific right whale is to have any chance of survival, we must protect its critical habitat, not auction it off to oil companies.”
Three species of right whales, the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica), the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), and the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), are currently recognized by scientists. While recent genetic data supports this three-species taxonomy, right whales in the North Atlantic and North Pacific were, until today, listed under the Endangered Species Act under older taxonomy as a single species (Balaena glacialis). Separate listing of the North Pacific right whale significantly increases legal protection for the species and triggers requirements to prepare a recovery plan and take other actions to better protect the species and its habitat.
In August 2005, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service requesting that the agency separately list the North Pacific right whale as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. In December 2006, the Center sued the Fisheries Service to force the agency to complete the process of listing the North Pacific right whale. The agency subsequently issued a proposed rule in December 2006 and published the final rule in today’s Federal Register.
Previous petitions and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity resulted in the Fisheries Service designating 36,000 square miles of the Bering Sea near Bristol Bay as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale on July 6, 2006. However, more than 15,000 square miles of this designated habitat is within the North Aleutian Basin, a planning area that the Bush administration has proposed to open for oil and gas leasing.
North Pacific right whales consist of two distinct populations. The eastern stock visits the southeastern Bering Sea each summer near Bristol Bay. Only 17 individual whales have been documented in the population, and the total abundance is likely well below 100. The western stock occurs primarily in the Sea of Okhotsk. Its abundance is unknown but is generally thought to be less than 200. Oil and gas development near Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk threatens this population as well. There are approximately 350 North Atlantic right whales and 7,000 southern right whales remaining. Only the southern right whale is showing any signs of recovery from previous commercial whaling, which greatly depleted all three species.
“By finally affording the North Pacific right whale the full protections of the Endangered Species Act to which it is legally entitled and so desperately needs, this critically imperiled whale has a real chance of recovery,” added Cummings. “But we must not throw away that chance in furtherance of our addiction to oil.”
A copy of the petition and more information on the North Pacific right whale is available on the Center for Biological Diversity’s Web site at:
# # #