|Center for Biological Diversity||
Northern Right Whale
Once abundant in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the right whale is now the most endangered whale in the world. Prized for its oil and baleen plates--and preferred for its slow speed and floating-carcass characteristiccommercial whalers deemed E. glacialis the 'right whale' to hunt, and nearly extirpated the northern right whale from both oceans. Today there may be only 300 right whales left in the Atlantic Ocean, and perhaps only 100 left in the Pacific.
The northern right whale has been protected internationally since 1935, and is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Although no longer hunted, right whales continue to be killed by human activities. Right whales are struck and killed by ships travelling in and out of ports. Right whales are also killed by commercial fishing gear: the gear wraps around the whale as it swims through the ocean, eventually strangling the whale or preventing it from feeding. Pollution and habitat destruction also pose threats to the species.
In 1991, the National Marine Fisheries Service published its Final Recovery Plan for the Northern Right Whale. Among other things, the Final Recovery Plan suggested that critical habitat be designated for the northern right whale in the Atlantic Ocean. The recovery plan did not recommend designating critical habitat for the Pacific population because it was not possible to determine what areas were essential to the survival of the species at that time. However, the recovery plan did recommend that critical habitat be designated in the North Pacific once such areas were identified.
Recent sightings of right whales in the Bering Sea indicate that critical habitat in the North Pacific has finally been discovered. For the past five summers, northern right whales have been seen in the Bering Sea near Bristol Bay, Alaska. The whales have been seen feeding and engaging in courtship behavior in this area. On October 4, 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity, petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to revise its critical habitat determination for the north pacific population pursuant to the federal Endangered Species Act.
Because much is still unknown about the migratory habits of the northern right whale, the Center identified both currently occupied and currently unoccupied marine habitats as critical for the North Pacific population. The unoccupied areas were identified based on biologoical and physical characteristics that make for suitable right whale habitat. Together, the proposed areas comprise a very small but critical portion of the historic range of the species.
Designating critical habitat for the North Pacific population of the right whale provides significant additional conservation benefits to the species. The ESA prohibits federal agencies from carrying out, funding or permitting activities which result in the adverse modification of designated critical habitat, whether or not the whale's currently occupy the area. In this way, the act ensures that migratory endangered species like the northern right whale will have a home to return to after they end their migration. Without critical habitat designation, the protective provisions of the ESA would travel with the individual whales, leaving their seasonal home at risk of human encroachment.
June 4, 2001