ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Conservationists filed a formal petition today urging the federal government to expand the critical habitat designation in Alaska for North Pacific right whales — the most endangered whale population in the world.
Today’s petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service documents growing threats to the whales in the habitat proposed for protection. Trans-Arctic shipping traffic, for example, is surging as climate change and melting sea ice open shipping routes, increasing ocean noise and risks of vessel strikes.
The eastern North Pacific right whale population ranges from the Bering Sea to Baja California and is down to only about 30 individuals. With very few reproducing females, it is at extreme risk of imminent extinction.
“If we don’t want to lose these magnificent whales in our lifetimes, we have to safeguard all the habitat that’s critical to their survival,” said Cynthia Elkins, a senior paralegal and researcher at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Only a fraction of this important area is protected now, so federal action is a crucial step toward saving these imperiled animals.”
New surveys and research confirmed two key habitats essential for this right whale population’s survival — a migratory corridor through the Fox Islands in the Aleutian chain, including Unimak Pass, and feeding grounds near Kodiak Island. Today’s petition asks the Fisheries Service to designate these areas as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act, connecting two small existing units.
Acoustic surveys verified that right whales use Unimak Pass during and outside the assumed migratory season. This follows another important discovery that scientists learned in an earlier acoustical analysis: North Pacific right whales put calls into distinguishable, consistent songs — making them the first right whales ever known to sing.
“The fact that right whales sing to communicate means ocean noise threatens them more than realized. We have so much still to learn from these incredible animals, and it would be tragic if we don’t do everything it takes to have the chance to do so,” said Kevin Campion, boat captain and founder of Save the North Pacific Right Whale.
In addition to vessel strikes and ocean noise, climate change, oil and gas spills and fishing gear entanglements also threaten right whales and their habitat. A 2020 study concluded climate change threatens North Pacific right whales more than any other marine mammal, putting them in “double jeopardy” due to other growing threats.
The Fisheries Service must respond to today’s petition within 90 days. If the agency determines the proposed revision may be warranted, it must make a final decision on the petition within one year.