US agency studies request to expand rare whale habitat


ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. government on Monday accepted a request from environmental groups to study increasing critical habitat designations in Alaskan waters for North Pacific right whales, one of the species of the rarest whales in the world.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Fisheries Administration estimates there are about 30 whales left after centuries of hunting, ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements that 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 habitat. for whales.

Two groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Save the North Pacific Right Whale, asked the agency in March to expand the habitat by connecting the two existing areas.

This would extend the Bering Sea border west and south to Alaska’s Fox Islands, through Unimak Pass to the edge of the continental slope, the agency said in a statement.

The proposal would also expand the area of ​​critical habitat off Kodiak Island in the eastern Gulf of Alaska to include new feeding grounds that the Center for Biological Diversity says have been confirmed by new research. .

“Saving the habitat of the North Pacific right whale is crucial to protecting these magnificent animals,” Kristin Carden, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Threats to right whales in the North Pacific are increasing daily. This review did not come a moment too soon.

The size of the proposed new habitat was not immediately available from NOAA Fisheries or environmental groups.

The extensive habitat would overlap with productive fishing grounds and high-volume shipping routes, NOAA Fisheries said, but it also coincides with visual sightings and acoustic data of the large whales.

Environmental groups said in their petition that the physical and biological features of the proposed critical habitat require special management considerations and protections, which could include vessel speed limits like those already in place to protect right whales. of the North Atlantic.

“I think it would be a tragedy to let them go without doing all we can, and we see this as a step forward to do the things we can,” said Kevin Campion of Save the North Pacific Right Whale. .

He added: “Granted that’s not all, but it’s a step in the right direction to make sure these animals exist on the planet.”

North Pacific right whales have been listed as endangered since 1973.

NOAA Fisheries is taking comments on the proposal through September and is due to release its decision within a year.


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