GLOUCESTER, Mass. — NOAA Fisheries announced last week that it was expanding the critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales to cover its northeast feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. The designated area is much larger than the one it replaces, and now includes all of the Gulf of Maine on the U.S. side of the national boundary with Canada.
The designation also was applied to an expanded area of the whales’ southeast calving grounds from North Carolina to Florida.
Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat within the range of the species consists of areas that contain physical or biological features essential to conservation of the species.
The final rule, which was first proposed in February 2015 and received 261 general comments over a 60-day comment period, does not include any new restrictions or management measures for commercial fishing operations. It does not create preserves or refuges.
However, federal agencies conducting, funding or permitting activities in these areas are required to work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or reduce impacts on critical habitat.
The announcement has sparked long-standing disagreements between environmental and animal organizations and commercial fisheries.
Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle called the decision “a lifeline” for right whales in a blog post published Friday. “The HSUS and its allies have been fighting for an expansion of protected habitat since 2009, and it’s a victory for us over commercial fishermen and shipping interests that have irresponsibly downplayed their role in driving down the numbers of these mammoth creatures,” he wrote.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources submitted comment questioning the need for such a large expansion of the area and requesting the area begin further offshore, using a contour line (set distance from shore) rather than the Maine exemption line defined in the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (AWLTRP), a separate federal program.
“We support the designation of additional right whale habitat that is shown to be essential to the conservation and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale; however, we oppose the designation area as proposed,” Maine Lobsterman’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron wrote in comment on behalf of her organization as well as the Downeast Lobsterman’s Association, the Southern Maine Lobsterman’s Association and the Maine Lobstering Union.
The lobster industry groups agree with the DMR’s critique that “the area proposed for designation is not based on the best available science and includes vast areas for which there is no scientific evidence to support inclusion,” McCarron wrote.
She notes that federal law requires regulators take into consideration economic impacts of designating critical habitat areas. She also pointed to a 2014 Endangered Species Act report in which the National Marine Fisheries Service found fishery-related activities do not affect right “essential features” of whale foraging habitat.
Maine’s lobster industry has been active in the AWLTRP process, McCarron wrote. “Our fishermen have worked diligently over nearly two decades to implement changes in our fishing practices to aid in the recovery of right whales.”
According to NOAA Fisheries, the rule is based on 35 years of aircraft and ship-borne surveys of right whale distribution, and research into foraging and prey availability. Those data, the fisheries agency said, provide “a far more robust understanding of the factors critical to species recovery.”
With that additional information and public comments, NOAA scientists and managers determined a critical habitat expansion associated with feeding in the north and calving in the south was necessary.
“With two decades of new information and improved understanding since we first designated critical habitat for the species, we believe the expansion will further protect essential foraging and calving areas to further improve recovery of this animal,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement announcing the action. “We’re making significant progress in reversing the population decline of the species, and are seeing signs of recovery – up to about 500 animals from the estimated 300 in 1994. But we still have a long way to get to complete recovery.”
Reporter Liz Graves co-authored this story