More protection sought for right whales

North Pacific Right Whale. Photo by Jim Scarff

Conservationists are seeking expanded critical habitat designation in Alaska for North Pacific right whales, the world’s most endangered whale population.

They filed a formal petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service on March 10, citing a growing threat to the habitat of the species.

NMFS has 90 days to respond. If NMFS determines the proposed revision may be warranted, it must make a final decision on the petition within one year.

Among issues cited is the surge in trans-Arctic shipping, which has created new shipping routes through melting ice, as well as increasing ocean noise and risks of vessel strikes.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity the eastern North Pacific right whale population from the Bering Sea to Baja, California is down to only about 30 whales. With few reproducing females, that population 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.”

Acoustic surveys certified 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.

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.