Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.

June 1, 2001


CBD's scientific petition would designate millions of acres of protected habitat in Alaska's Bering Sea for Earth's most imperiled whale

Contact: Brent Plater (415) 572-6989
More Information: Northern Right Whale

Responding to a formal administrative petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity ("CBD"), the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS") announced in the Federal Register today that critical habitat for the Pacific population of the Northern Right Whale may be warranted in portions of the Bering Sea. CBD proposed that NMFS designate a large portion of the Bering Sea as critical habitat for the Northern Right Whale, and today's finding indicates that NMFS may finally complete the designation process that was recommended by its own scientists nearly a decade ago.

"NMFS' action today is an important step in protecting the Northern Right Whale's home range from the threats posed by industrial activities in Alaska's oceanic frontier," said Brent Plater, CBD attorney. "The critical habitat designation will go a long way towards protecting the summer range of Earth's most imperiled whale."

Today's finding, known as a '90-day finding' under the Endangered Species Act ("ESA"), is the first procedural step towards designating critical habitat for the Northern Right Whale in the Pacific Ocean. It is known as a 90-day finding because NMFS is required by the ESA to respond to formal administrative petitions within 90 days of receiving the petition. However, NMFS failed to meet their response deadline in this instance, and on February 11, 2001 CBD filed an intent-to-sue letter with NMFS alleging that NMFS was unlawfully delaying the processing of the petition.

The delay in responding to the petition is symptomatic of a much larger delay in designating critical habitat for the Pacific population. In 1991, a recovery plan was drafted by NMFS that called for designation of critical habitat in the Pacific Ocean for the Right Whale when sufficient information became available. In 1994, critical habitat was designated in the Atlantic Ocean for the Atlantic population of the Northern Right Whale. However, nearly 10 years after the recovery plan was drafted, the Pacific population is still without officially designated critical habitat.

The positive 90-day finding does not provide immediate protection for the Pacific population of the Northern Right Whale. Rather, it only begins another procedural stage in the ESA, where NMFS must conduct a review of the best scientific and economic information available to determine how to proceed with the critical habitat proposal. The second stage must be completed within 12 months of receipt of the petition.

Once abundant in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Northern right whale is now the most endangered whale in the world. Prized for its oil and baleen plates-and preferred for its slow speed and floating-carcass characteristic-commercial whalers deemed Right Whales the "right whale" to hunt, and nearly extirpated the Northern Right Whale from both oceans. Today there may be only 300 right whales left in the Atlantic Ocean, and perhaps only 100 left in the Pacific.

The Northern Right Whale has been listed as an endangered species since 1970. Federally listed species are entitled to several levels of protection, including the designation of "critical habitat": additional protection for habitat areas that are essential for the survival of the species and may require special management considerations. Critical habitat is supposed to be designated concurrently with a species listing. However, as evidenced by the Northern right whale, critical habitat determinations are often delayed for years and often require citizen pressure to compel agencies to comply with the mandates of the ESA.


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