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 characteristic-commercial 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 100 or less left in the Pacific.

Right Whales have been protected internationally since 1935, and have been protected as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. Although no longer hunted, right whales continue to be killed by human activities. Right whales are struck and killed by ships traveling 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 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 the Pacific population was so small that no one knew at the time where its critical habitats were. However, the Recovery Plan did recommend that critical habitat be designated in the North Pacific once such areas were identified.

Center Leads International Fight to Protect Critical Habitats for Right Whales

Right whales are often struck and killed by boats.

However, beginning in 1996 scientists began to see a congregation of right whales annually in the Bering Sea, and this year scientists have found more right whales in this area than were found in the previous five years. In the meantime, scientists used genetic evidence to prove that the Pacific “population” of the Northern right whale was in fact a separate species, E. japonica, the North Pacific Right Whale.

In light of these remarkable findings, in 2000 the Center for Biological Diversity formally requested that NMFS protect the Right Whale’s “critical habitat” as required by the federal Endangered Species Act. However, in response NMFS refused to protect any habitat for the whale, even though the species’ critical summertime habitats had been found. The Center then requested that NMFS reconsider its determination, but the agency never responded to any of the Center’s requests. After years of agency inaction and delay, the Center was forced to sue NMFS to insure that the places that the right whale calls home are protected.

Recent studies indicate that species with critical habitats protected are twice as likely to be recovering than those species that do not have critical habitat protected. This is because the Endangered Species Act provides additional protections to designated habitats. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from carrying out, funding or permitting activities that result in the adverse modification of designated critical habitat, whether or not the whales' currently occupy the area. In this way, the Endangered Species 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 Endangered Species Act would travel with the individual whales, leaving their seasonal home at risk of human encroachment.


graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
October 25, 2004
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