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For Immediate Release, April 8, 2008

Contact: Brendan Cummings, (760) 366-2232, x 304

Oil Drilling to Hit Heart of Right Whale Habitat in Bering Sea:
World’s Most Endangered Whale Will Be Sacrificed to Oil Companies

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Bush administration today took the first step toward opening up 5.6 million acres in the Bering Sea off Alaska to oil and gas leasing. The proposal, published in today’s Federal Register by the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, would allow oil development in an area north of the Aleutian Islands near Bristol Bay that has been designated critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale.

The North Pacific right whale, once ranging from California to Alaska and across the North Pacific to Russia and Japan, was decimated by commercial whaling and 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.

“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 at 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.”

In July 2006, approximately 36,000 square miles of the Bering Sea were designated as critical habitat for the right whale under the Endangered Species Act. The designation came as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity. More than half of the area proposed today for leasing is within right whale critical habitat.

Ironically, the leasing proposal was made the very same day that a different federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, published a final rule in the Federal Register that reaffirms the designation of portions of the lease area as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. Last month the Fisheries Service formally recognized the North Pacific right whale as a distinct species under the Endangered Species Act; previously the whale had been considered the same species as right whales in the North Atlantic. Today’s critical habitat designation protects the same areas in the Bering Sea as the 2006 designation of critical habitat, but transfers this habitat protection to the newly recognized North Pacific right whale.

“Unfortunately, for the right whale it’s one step forward, two steps back,” said Cummings. “One branch of the federal government is acting to protect the critical habitat of the North Pacific right whale, while another branch is simultaneously proposing to destroy it.”

Today’s contradictory government pronouncements in the Federal Register are reminiscent of the Minerals Management Service’s recent decision to lease important polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea at the same time another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was considering protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. Both the Minerals Management Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service are in the Department of the Interior under Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne. Secretary Kempthorne chose to delay protection for the polar bear until after the Chukchi lease sale was held. The polar bear listing has yet to be finalized and is in litigation.

Listing and critical habitat decisions for the right whale are under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is in the Department of Commerce rather than the Department of the Interior. The new listing and critical habitat designations for the North Pacific right whale were only issued following petitions and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, and would, if the administration complies with the Endangered Species Act, likely prevent the proposed lease sale from going forward.

“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 the right whale’s chances of recovery in furtherance of our addiction to oil.”

Under today’s leasing proposal, the North Aleutian Basin lease sale would be held in 2011. In addition to containing critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale, the North Aleutian Basin is important habitat for Pacific walrus, ribbon seals, humpback and beluga whales, and numerous species of seabirds. It also supports some of the largest commercial salmon fisheries in the world. The North Aleutian Basin sale is one of eight lease sales in the federal waters off Alaska scheduled under the 2007-2012 Leasing Program approved by Secretary Kempthorne in June 2007. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the leasing program in July 2007. That litigation is ongoing.

More information on the North Pacific right whale is available on the Center for Biological Diversity’s Web site at:


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