Lawsuit Seeks Habitat Protection for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale

BOSTON, Massachusetts, May 25, 2010 (ENS) – Conservationists seeking to block oil drilling off the U.S. Atlantic coast today filed a lawsuit asking for expanded habitat protections for the endangered North Atlantic right whale to include the species’ nursery, breeding and feeding grounds.

The lawsuit was filed in the District of Massachusetts federal court in Boston by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

One of about 350 North Atlantic right whales breaches in the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Commission)

In areas designated as critical habitat for an federally listed endangered species, the federal government must ensure that federally permitted activities such as oil drilling, commercial fishing, military training, and vessel traffic will not diminish the value of the habitat in a way that will impair recovery of the species. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama endorsed opening the U.S. east coast to oil drilling, but he has temporarily suspended all new drilling permits in view of the month-long Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has shown that industrial activities in the ocean can affect not only the animals themselves, but the entire environment in which they live,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.

“A similar catastrophe off the east coast of Georgia or Florida could make uninhabitable the only place on Earth that right whales give birth to their young,” Weaver said. “The government must consider such risks when deciding if and where to permit these types of activities.”

Listed under the Endangered Species Act more than 30 years ago, the population of the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, numbers only around 350 individuals, making it one of the world’s most endangered whales.

The lawsuit challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service’s failure to respond to the groups’ 2009 legal petition seeking expanded critical habitat for the species under the Endangered Species Act. By law, the agency is required to take action on such a petition within 90 days.

“Critical habitat protections have a proven track record of helping endangered species to survive,” said Andrea Treece, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The North Atlantic right whale is on the edge of extinction, and further delay of habitat protection may seal the species’ fate.”

Scientists estimate that if current trends continue, the population could go extinct in fewer than 200 years.

These whales migrate from their calving grounds off the southeastern United States to their feeding grounds off the northeastern United States and Canada. Adult female right whales reproduce slowly. They give birth to one calf every four years and do not reach reproductive maturity until age eight.

The groups’ petition seeks expanded protection for North Atlantic right whale calving grounds off of Georgia and northern Florida, protection for critical feeding habitat off the Northeast, and protections for the migratory route between calving and feeding grounds.

A collision and propeller cuts from a large ship killed this North Atlantic right whale. (Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries Service)

“In an increasingly busy ocean, the survival and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale depends on the protection of its essential habitat areas,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, senior biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

The primary threats to North Atlantic right whales are ship strikes, entanglement in commercial fishing gear, habitat degradation, rising noise levels, global warming, ocean acidification and pollution. Fishing gear entanglement and vessel strikes have killed or seriously injured at least 18 right whales since 2004.

The whales are regularly surveyed in the winter calving ground off Florida and Georgia, and in spring and summer feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay, the Great South Channel off Massachusetts, the Gulf of Maine, the Scotian Shelf, and the Bay of Fundy, but not all the whales using the wintering ground are seen in these major summering areas.

“Each year, more whales are found wrapped in fishing gear or mortally wounded by ships,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The Humane Society of the United States. “Every whale, and every square mile of protected habitat, counts when the population is so low.”

The North Atlantic right whale was once abundant in coastal waters on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean but is now one of the world’s most endangered species of mammal, terrestrial or marine.

By the early 1600s, thousands of western North Atlantic right whales had been killed, and by the early 1900s, survivors numbered only a few hundred whales at most, and perhaps just a few tens of animals.

The North Atlantic right whale has been protected from hunting by the International Whaling Commission and its predecessor since 1935, and is also protected in Canada, a non-member of the IWC.

A 2006 IWC report observed that while “reproduction has noticeably increased in this population, mortality has remained high and is a source of serious concern.”

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