The bowhead whale is the northernmost and one of the least well known of the baleen whale species. It was hunted almost to extinction in the 19th Century, and has been on the federal endangered species list since 1970. The bowhead receives protection primarily under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and from the International Whaling Commission.

February 22, 2000 -
Petition filed to Designate Critical Habitat for the Bowhead Whale

Photo courtesy of NOAAThe Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to designate critical habitat for the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea Stock of the bowhead whale, Baleana mysticetus, under the Endangered Species Act. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea Stock is the largest and most viable of five extant bowhead stocks, yet it is simultaneously the most threatened by human activity. Large scale industrial development and the associated vessel traffic of the oil and gas industry have proliferated within the bowhead's proposed critical habitat since the late 1970's. No fewer than five massive offshore projects are currently in operation or in the planning stages in the Beaufort Sea, and an additional four onshore facilities produce at least some of their oil from offshore. The bowhead is threatened by loud industrial noises and the corresponding rise in the ambient noise level in the ocean, disturbance due to oil spills and other substances, and from collisions with vessels.

Critical habitat is at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, which was enacted to protect endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Critical habitat is defined as the area most essential for the survival and recovery of the species that may require special management considerations. The area that best meets this definition in the case of the bowhead is the area in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone from 158 W (just east of Point Barrow) to the Canadian Border, from the mean high tide line to approximately 170 km offshore. A map of the area is available here.

Critical habitat provides important protections to listed species. Federal agencies must ensure that any action authorized, carried out, or funded by them will not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat, in addition to ensuring that any action authorized, carried out, or funded will not jeopardize the continued existence of the species. Protecting the ecosystem upon which a species depends through the designation of critical habitat is a vital part of the Endangered Species Act. This protection for the arctic marine habitat of the bowhead is doubly important because so little is known about the bowhead's biology, natural history, and ability to withstand industrial development of its habitat.

May 22, 2001 - NMFS Publishes a Positive Initial Decision

NMFS published a positive decision on our petition on May 22, 2001. The positive finding does not provide immediate protection for the Bowhead's habitat. Rather, it only begins another procedural stage in the ESA, where NMFS must conduct a review of the best scientific and economic information available to determine how to proceed with the critical habitat proposal. We will be watching NMFS closely to insure that the critical habitat designation is finalized.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
June 24, 2003
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