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After one year of waiting, it was decided that the safe habitat for North Atlantic right whales will expand in order to assure the survival of the endangered species. The expanded habitat was taken under consideration by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the decision was taken as of January 27th, 2016.
The critically endangered whales will benefit from a major widening of their protected areas, to live, feed, breed, and raise their young.
Back in 1994, officials called for the protection of the North Atlantic right whales after their numbers were brought down to a worrying 300 left. This was due mainly to commercial fishing, and the unfortunate habits of the marine mammals themselves. Right whales are very docile, slow swimmers who have a habit of travelling near the coasts and close to the surface of the water. That made them especially vulnerable to whalers.
Over time, their population diminished, so NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service designated their first protected habitat. They were offered an area of almost 3,000 square nautical miles, including a portion of Cape Cod Bay, Stellwagen Bank, the Great South Channel, coastal Georgia and the eastern shoreline of Florida.
Only 520 right whales alive today
However, today’s human activities and highly industrialized coastlines have hindered the species’ recovery. Be it ship strikes or entanglements with fishing gear, the right whales have not seen as big of an improvement as hoped. In fact, the numbers round up at just 520 right whales around the waters after more than twenty years worth of efforts and protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Thus, the call has been made for an expansion of their protected areas, one that was recently approved.
From 3,000 nautical mi2 to 21,000 nautical mi2
NOAA officially announced that the critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whales will be expanded to over 21,000 square nautical miles. The new area will include regions in the Gulf of Maine up to the Canadian border. According to Eileen Sobeck from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, they have had two decades worth of information since the first habitat was set. Now, they have a better understanding of the species and believe that an expansion is required for their survival.
Sobeck claimed that they have indeed made progress. The species are seeing a very slow recovery, but there is need for additional effort to ensure their survival. They “have a long way to get to complete recovery”.
As stated by Charles “Stormy” Mayo from the Center for Coastal Studies, it’s difficult to put an animal in one tiny box. They don’t stay in one place, and whales in particular are known to travel thousands of miles in just one year of their life. The adjustment properly recognizes their needs and their wide use of their environment.
However, NOAA underlines the fact that the newly designated area will not truly affect future offshore projects. But, they will certainly go under more scrutiny, and it will allow government officials to get involved in mitigating future impacts with the endangered species. Should something go wrong, officials will be in their right to act on the side of the whales.
The decision will go into effect at the end of next month, but current operations will not be impacted by the change. It’s not a refuge for the North Atlantic right whales, but merely an area where their survival can be aided in case of trouble.
Image source: itsnicethat.com