Ultra-rare whales swimming in Alaska waters could get bigger areas of protection
Some of the world’s rarest whales could get enhanced protection under a plan announced by federal regulators on Tuesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service said it will reevaluate the habitat designated as critical for the tiny population of right whales that swim in the waters off Alaska.
The move is in response to a petition filed last year by the Center for Biological Diversity and an organization called Save the North Pacific Right Whale. They argued that the areas of critical right whale habitat designated 15 years ago by NOAA Fisheries are far too small to effectively conserve the tiny population.
Scientists believe there are only about 30 animals in what is called the Eastern North Pacific right whale population. The critically endangered population that shares Alaska waters with fishing vessels and cargo ships is distinct from other highly endangered right whale populations in the world, including the few hundred in the Western North Pacific population and the North Atlantic population.
Critical habitat, as defined in the Endangered Species Act, is an area that is considered essential to conservation of a listed population. The act requires that any endangered or threatened listing be followed by a designation of critical habitat, as long as there is enough information available to do so. Within critical habitat, any activities requiring federal permits must be vetted for potential impacts to the listed species.
NOAA Fisheries in 2008 designated critical habitat consisting of 1,175 square miles in the Gulf of Alaska south of Kodiak Island and 35,460 square miles in the southeastern Bering Sea.
The environmental petitioners are seeking a vast expansion, to include a large swath south of the Alaska Peninsula and eastern Aleutian Islands and a larger chunk of the southeastern Bering Sea north of the Aleutians. Included in the groups’ proposed expansion is a heavily trafficked area called Unimak Pass, an important marine transit zone used by ships, marine mammals and fish traveling between the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea through the easternmost section of the Aleutians.
NOAA Fisheries has not yet committed to any particular expansion, said Jenna Malek, the agency’s North Pacific right whale recovery coordinator.
“It’s unknown at this time what a revision is going to look like,” Malek said.
In addition to Unimak Pass, other areas the environmental groups are seeking to add as designated critical habitat overlap with areas used for commercial fishing and shipping. Malek said NOAA Fisheries will have to consider possible impacts to those industries as it evaluates options for critical habitat revisions.
Since 2008, there have been visual sightings or acoustic recordings of right whales in areas outside of that designated critical habitat, according to NOAA Fisheries.
In one notable case, an Eastern North Pacific right whale was spotted in 2018 well to the north of existing designated critical habitat in waters off St. Lawrence Island at the southern tip of the Bering Strait, then later in nearby waters off Russia. Another St. Lawrence Island sighting occurred in 2019.
Two North Pacific right whales were spotted in February of 2022 feeding in waters near Unimak Pass, according to NOAA. The most recent sighting was in February, made by people aboard a whale-watching ship off Monterey, California, Malek said. It is unclear whether they migrate and, if so, how they migrate, she said. “We know that they can be popping up pretty much anywhere any time of the year,” she said.
Sightings are rare. “Only a handful of folks have actually seen them,” she said.
While a couple of sightings of juveniles are considered encouraging, there are continued mysteries about the population, Malek said.
“There is a lot more that is unknown than is known about this species, unfortunately,” she said.
The North Pacific right whale population was once feared extinct, the victim of commercial harvests of past centuries. They were considered the “right whales” to hunt because they swim slowly and have such a high blubber content that they floated when killed.
Now the major threats cited are, along with climate change, ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. Such events have been documented among the North Atlantic right whale population, but so far not among the tiny Eastern North Pacific population swimming off Alaska, Malek said. But given the remoteness of the habitat, incidents are possible, she said. “We don’t have any evidence, but that’s not to say that it’s not happening.”
The groups seeking expanded critical habitat welcomed NOAA Fisheries’ action.
“I’m encouraged that North Pacific right whales may get these badly needed protections,” said Cooper Freeman, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska representative, said in a statement. “There’s no time to waste in helping these whales, who are teetering right on the brink of extinction.”
Kevin Campion, founder of Save the North Pacific Right Whale, said in the statement: “As one of the rarest whales on the planet, North Pacific right whales require a dedicated effort to recover. … We’re grateful to NOAA for recognizing these areas are critical to the whale’s survival.”
However, the Center for Biological Diversity is critical of another federal action in waters used by right whales and other marine species.
The center last week sent a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration over its recent decision to include barge routes in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the federal marine highway system.
The designation of what is being called the M-11 route through Alaska waters, announced last month by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, failed to consider impacts of increased ship traffic to endangered and threatened species, including North Pacific right whales, the center’s Sept. 21 notice said.
“There can be no doubt that vessel traffic on the M-11 Route ‘may affect,’ and is ‘likely to adversely affect,’ these listed species. Increasing vessel traffic heightens the likelihood and risk of ship strikes, strandings, and spills of fuel, oil cargo, or chemicals, intensifies vessel noise, and may adversely affect prey abundance,” the notice said.