NOAA approves 10-fold increase in right whale habitat

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced today that it is dramatically increasing the critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales, with protections for feeding grounds and calving areas along the East Coast.

The final rule expands the whales’ habitat tenfold, to almost 30,000 square nautical miles. That includes Northeast feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine and calving grounds between north Florida and North Carolina.

The agency — a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — hopes the new designation will help protect an endangered species that was once hunted to near-extinction. Today, about 500 of the whales remain in the North Atlantic, where their biggest threats are ship strikes and fishing entanglements.

Conservationists have also raised concerns over how seismic surveys in the Atlantic might affect the whales, which migrate along the East Coast (Greenwire, Sept. 8, 2015). The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to open up the area to offshore drilling, and companies are seeking permits for seismic surveys, which use loud underwater air guns to find untapped mineral deposits.

The expanded critical habitat requires federal agencies to work with NOAA to ensure their activities — or projects they fund — do not negatively impact the area. It does not place any restrictions directly on the public or commercial fishing.

Today’s announcement comes more than six years after environmental groups petitioned NMFS to expand the whales’ habitat. The final rule, set to publish in tomorrow’s Federal Register, follows the timeline of a court-ordered settlement with Defenders of Wildlife.

The new area is based on aircraft and ship surveys completed over the past 35 years, according to a NOAA press release.

“With two decades of new information and improved understanding since we first designated critical habitat for the species, we believe the expansion will further protect essential foraging and calving areas to further improve recovery of this animal,” NMFS Administrator Eileen Sobeck said in a statement.

The final rule makes only one change to the proposal NMFS released earlier this year, adding 341 nautical miles to the critical habitat area off the southeastern United States. That area will now extend from Cape Fear, N.C., to 27 nautical miles below Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Environmentalists will likely be disappointed that the final designation does not include the whales’ migratory route in the Mid-Atlantic. In its response to public comments, NMFS said data on the route are still preliminary.

“Regardless of the distance from shore in which right whales have been documented along the mid-Atlantic, we found no evidence to support a conclusion that ‘distance from shore’ is a physical or biological habitat feature essential to the conservation of right whales,” NMFS officials wrote in the Federal Register notice. “In other words, we found no basis to suggest that right whales key in on distance from shore, or somehow use distance from shore, to facilitate migration.”