Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 21, 2023


Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054,

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Alaska’s Whales From Increased Ship Traffic

Biden Administration Created New Marine Highway Without Considering Dangers

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice today of its intent to sue the U.S. Maritime Administration for failing to consider shipping traffic’s harm to highly endangered whales and other wildlife along the Alaska coast.

The agency designated a new Marine Highway Route around Alaska, targeting the area for increased vessel traffic. But officials didn’t consider the many Endangered Species Act-protected animals that rely on those waterways and would be harmed or killed by an increase in maritime shipping. These include humpback whales, who are already suffering from vessel strikes in the Arctic, which is one of the primary threats facing this imperiled and iconic animal.

“Alaska’s endangered marine wildlife will face a surge of deadly ship strikes, pollution and habitat disruption because of this failure to follow the clear requirements of bedrock environmental law,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center. “This sets a dangerous precedent for imperiled wildlife. Climate change is already causing harm in the Arctic, and opening up the area to increased shipping traffic creates a double whammy that could kill so many vulnerable animals.”

The administration designated the new route in Alaska as part of the United States Marine Highway Program, which is specifically intended to expand the use of America’s navigable waterways. Designating a Marine Highway Route makes that route eligible for further action to increase vessel traffic, including through grants to purchase materials, equipment, facilities and vessels such as barges.

But the agency failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act, which requires it to consider the impacts of increased vessel traffic on protected wildlife.

The new route includes the waterways of the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay, the Arctic Ocean and the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta. Protected species within the route include the humpback whale, bowhead whale, North Pacific right whale, fin whale, ringed seal, bearded seal, polar bear and Steller’s eider, among others.

Increasing vessel traffic heightens the likelihood and risk of ship strikes, strandings, and spills of fuel, oil cargo or chemicals. It also intensifies vessel noise and may adversely affect prey abundance. Many protected species have migration corridors that broadly overlap with the main shipping routes proposed under the new marine highway.

“The agency’s failure to consider this new route’s threats to whales and other wildlife is a glaring violation of the law and a total abdication of the urgent need to protect Arctic species,” said Margolis. “These species are already being driven to the brink of extinction. This is like building a highway through their homes without any consideration of the harms. We should expect more from the Biden administration.”

Today’s notice states that the Maritime Administration must comply with the Endangered Species Act by undertaking a programmatic level review of the decision to designate the new Marine Highway Route and thereby target it for increased traffic.

This will allow expert wildlife agencies the opportunity to analyze the impacts of multiple projects under the program. The agencies will also be able to ensure that appropriate program-wide criteria and safeguards are in place to protect imperiled species.

Pacific humpback whale
Photo of humpback whale available for media use with appropriate credit. Credit: NOAA Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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