Right whales – more endangered than pandas, Siberian tigers, or black rhinos – received a lifeline today from the federal government when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced it will take action to expand the boundaries of their existing critical habitat in the North Atlantic by approximately 39,500 square miles. The HSUS and its allies have been fighting for an expansion of protected habitat since 2009, and it’s a victory for us over commercial fishermen and shipping interests that have irresponsibly downplayed their role in driving down the numbers of these mammoth creatures.
Only about 450 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales exist. Commercial whalers, operating from Nantucket and New Bedford and other hubs of the industry, decimated their population in the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite their being federally protected since 1970, right whales have still not rebounded and have faced continuing human-caused threats, albeit not nearly as intentional as those posed by the whalers who struck them with harpoons centuries before. Female whales, in particular, continue to die at an unsustainable rate because of fatal strikes by large vessels and entanglement in commercial fishing gear. In some years now, only a single calf has survived. The expansion announced today includes the species’ vital calving grounds in the southeastern United States, as well as important feeding areas off the northeast coast.
In 2009, The HSUS and our allies filed a petition with the federal government, requesting the expansion of protected areas for right whales. When the NMFS took no action, we filed suit over the delay and, in 2014, the government agreed to specific dates by which it would make decisions on expanding the boundaries of critical habitat. We are pleased to see that NMFS, in making its decision, resisted calls by some commercial industries who had wanted only minimal changes. Although the migratory corridor between the Northeast and the Southeast was not included in the expansion, NMFS did extend the boundary of the critical habitat further to the south in Florida, as we had requested.
The federal government must now ensure that activities, including vessel traffic and commercial fishing, will not diminish the value of the habitat or reduce the right whale’s chance for recovery.
I want to thank more than 16,500 of our members and supporters who sent in comments supporting the expansion of critical habitat for right whales. Your show of support was vital in reminding decision makers that the American public cares deeply about the issue. The designation of broad areas of critical habitat for right whales is the first step in ensuring that commercial activities will not harm these animals who are as big and magnificent as the prehistoric dinosaurs who once roamed the earth. What a moral crime it would be if we allowed their demise on our watch.