Some of the world's last Pacific right whales will get special protections in the Bering Sea to boost the animals' chances of avoiding extinction, the National Marine Fisheries Service said Tuesday.
ANCHORAGE Some of the world's last Pacific right whales will get special protections in the Bering Sea to boost the animals' chances of avoiding extinction, the National Marine Fisheries Service said Tuesday.
A 36,750-square-mile area, just outside of southwestern Alaska's salmon-rich Bristol Bay, would be designated as critical habitat for Pacific right whales under the NMFS proposal.
If the designation becomes official, federal agencies would be required to work with NMFS to ensure that no activities in the area destroy or threaten the whales' habitat. The proposal is subject to public review through January 2, NMFS said.
The mammals are the most endangered large whales in the world, with no more than 100 believed to exist, according to the agency.
Biologists have repeatedly seen right whales in that area since the mid-1990s and acoustic devices on the sea floor have recorded their calls there, said Brad Smith, a biologist with NMFS's Alaska regional office.
"They do have a characteristic call that can be recognized and that identifies them as right whales," Smith said.
The NMFS proposal to designate critical habitat came in response to an order issued in June by a federal judge, who sided with environmental plaintiffs' claims that the Bush administration had illegally delayed taking action to protect the whales.
"We finally have, after decades of thinking that they were functionally extinct, some hope of protecting Pacific right whales," said Brent Plater, the San Francisco-based staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to force the protections.
Right whales in the Pacific were nearly wiped out by commercial hunters by the early 20th century. Because they swim slowly, hug the shoreline and are so fat that they float when dead, they were known by commercial harvesters as the "right whales" to hunt.
They were believed to have vanished entirely from the eastern Pacific until sporadic sightings were reported, starting in the 1960s, Smith said. In the 1996 some were seen swimming in the southeastern Bering Sea and in 2004 three mother-calf pairs were spotted in the area now proposed for protection, he said.
There are separate but small populations of northern right whales in the Atlantic and in the western Pacific off the Russian and Japanese coasts.