Progress! The highly endangered North Atlantic right whale is one step closer to safer waters, thanks to the settlement agreement we reached just before Thanksgiving with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which the courts made official this week. Under the agreement, the agency must finally expand critical habitat for right whales by February 2016. Since the initial designation of critical habitat in 1994, right whales have scraped by with a fraction of the protected waters they needed. Yet the most up-to-date science clearly demonstrates that the whales rely on a habitat that covers over 50,000 square miles. That habitat must be protected for the species to recover from the brink of extinction.
These shore-hugging whales encounter all sorts of dangerous obstacles when migrating twice a year between their summer feeding areas off the New England coast to their winter calving grounds off the southeastern United States. Ship traffic, entangling fishing gear, noisy and dangerous military exercises and energy development make the trip exceedingly difficult and even fatal for right whales, which struggle with an alarmingly low population of around 450 individuals.
After years of prodding NMFS to expand critical habitat for right whales, we joined forces with our conservation allies this past April to sue the agency for dragging its feet in responding to our 2009 petition to increase critical habitat protections. Now with the settlement, NMFS must publish a proposed rule by February 2015 and a final decision by February 2016 — firm, legally binding deadlines that cannot come soon enough. Our coalition’s experts will closely analyze the proposed rule to make sure that it takes into account the information that NMFS’s own experts have published about the importance of expanding right whale critical habitat.
It will be extremely important to gather support for a larger critical habitat designation because we expect several industries – including commercial fishing and shipping – to oppose any efforts to expand it. As soon as the proposed rule comes out, we will alert our members so that you can submit your comments to NMFS and tell them that you support a much larger critical habitat for these endangered whales. So stay tuned!
NMFS’s decision about where and how much additional habitat to designate will have a big impact on how long it will take for this endangered species to recover from the brink of extinction. As one of the world’s most endangered mammals, right whales cannot afford to decline any further. Defenders and our conservation allies will continue to hold NMFS accountable and make sure the agency follows through with its agreement.
Anne Russell Gregory is the Conservation Law Coordinator at Defenders of Wildlife