ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. government granted a request Monday from environmental groups to study increasing critical habitat designations in Alaskan waters for North Pacific right whales, one of the whale species rarest in the world.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries Administration estimates that about 30 of the whales remain after centuries of hunting, ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear have devastated the species.
In 2008, the agency designated about 1,175 square miles (3,043 square kilometers) in the Gulf of Alaska and about 35,460 square miles (91,841 square kilometers) in the southeastern Bering Sea as critical whale habitat.
Two groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Save the North Pacific Right Whale, petitioned the agency in March to expand habitat by connecting the two existing areas.
This would extend the boundary of the Bering Sea west and south to Alaska’s Fox Islands, through Unimak Passage to the edge of the continental slope, the agency said in a statement.
The proposal would also extend the critical habitat area off Kodiak Island east into the Gulf of Alaska to include new foraging grounds that the Center for Biological Diversity has said was confirmed by new research.
“Safeguarding North Pacific right whale habitat is crucial to protecting these magnificent animals,” said Kristin Carden, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “The threats to North Pacific right whales are growing with each passing day. This review has not come too soon.”
The size of the proposed new habitat was not immediately available from NOAA Fisheries or environmental groups.
The extended habitat would overlap with productive fishing grounds and high-volume marine transit routes, NOAA Fisheries said, but also coincide with visual sightings and acoustic data of the great whales.
The environmental groups said in their petition that physical and biological features in the proposed critical habitat require special management considerations and protections, which could include vessel speed limits like those already in place to protect North Atlantic right whales. .
“I think it would be a tragedy to let them go extinct without doing everything we can, and we see this as a step to do the things we can,” said Kevin Campion of the group Save the North Pacific Right Whale.
He added: “It is certainly not all, but it is a step in the right direction to ensure that these animals come into existence on the planet.”
North Pacific right whales have been listed as endangered since 1973.
NOAA Fisheries is receiving comments on the proposal until September and must publish its decision within a year.
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