Never give up, never surrender! That has been our mantra for more than six long years of pushing the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand designated critical habitat for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Although we had to go to court twice to force the agency to act on our 2009 petition, the Fisheries Service recently published its final rule designating nearly 30,000 additional square miles of critical habitat. All told, this means nearly 40,000 square miles of ocean habitat will now receive special management consideration and protection.
The Right Whale to Protect
North Atlantic right whales are protected under both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These laws have helped bring the right whale back from the brink of extinction caused by 18th and 19th century whaling. With only around 500 animals left, however, the right whale still has a long road ahead to recovery. Today, the two biggest direct threats to right whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Defenders and our allies have worked tirelessly to protect right whales from these threats by advocating for slow-speed zones to prevent whales from being hit, as well as fishing gear restrictions to reduce the number of entangling vertical lines whales may encounter.
But ship strikes and entanglement are not the only threats to right whales. Their ocean habitats are increasingly busy and threatened with development pressures from new industries (such as offshore energy and aquaculture) as well as oil spills and other water pollution. Under the ESA, the Fisheries Service designates critical habitat for a species when it finds that specific areas are essential to that species’ conservation. Critical habitat requires federal agencies to make sure human activities requiring federal permits (like offshore energy development and aquaculture facilities) don’t damage or destroy the habitat that whales need to survive. The right whale’s previously-designated critical habitat has covered only about 4,000 square miles – a mere fraction of the 55,000 square miles of ocean habitat that this highly migratory species needs. Thankfully, the new designation protects two more key pieces of right whale habitat.
Critical Habitat Unit 1 – The Feeding Grounds
As a type of baleen whale, the right whale manages to reach a length of 45 to 55 feet and a weight of up to 70 tons by filter-feeding on zooplankton, tiny animals that drift in the ocean. Copepods, a type of microscopically small crustacean, are the right whale’s primary prey. They are ten orders of magnitude smaller than their right whale predators. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of copepods to grow a right whale! Right whales feed in areas where ocean currents, temperature, and geographical features combine so that copepods are concentrated in massive numbers. Protecting such areas helps ensure right whales have enough to eat not only to survive day to day, but also to build up blubber reserves for the demands of pregnancy and nursing. Part of the newly-protected habitat is an area off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, in the cold, nutrient-rich waters where copepod aggregations occur.
Critical Habitat Unit 2 – The Breeding Grounds
Each year, female right whales leave their cold, deep foraging grounds in the north for warmer, shallower, and calmer waters in the south. These areas have ideal conditions for mother whales to calve and nurse their babies. For baby whales to survive, mother-calf pairs must stay close together in calm waters that strike the right temperature balance for the needs of both hungry, weak, and blubber-poor baby whales and their lactating, fasting, blubber-rich mothers. With only around 500 of these whales remaining, ensuring the safety of the next generation of whales is vital to their recovery. To protect these waters, the Fisheries Service designated an area of critical habitat from Cape Fear, North Carolina, down to just south of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The Missing Piece
We are happy to see that the Fisheries Service finally took action to expand right whale critical habitat into these areas that are so essential for the species’ survival and recovery. However, the Service’s action still falls short in one vital respect. The agency refused to designate any migratory habitat linking Units 1 and 2, even though right whales travel up and down the coast each year. Protecting feeding and breeding habitats is a start, but it doesn’t go far enough if the right whale habitat linking them is at risk. It looks like we’ll need to roll up our sleeves and get back to work to ensure right whales and their habitats are protected along the entire Atlantic coast. But for today, we celebrate this long-fought and hard-won victory for right whale protection.
Learn About Right Whales
Among the most endangered whales in the world, North Atlantic right whales are making a slow comeback since whaling decimated their population. Yet today, they still face a number of man-made threats.