Sierra Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney
Winter tends to be a big time for highly endangered North Atlantic right whales. Just like some of us who travel to warmer climes during the cold of winter, right whales head south to warm up. But for them, reaching warm water is more important than just finding a nice vacation spot. Each winter, pregnant females migrate from their feeding grounds off New England down to their only known calving grounds off the coast of the Southeastern United States to give birth to the next generation of right whales. There, the warm shallow waters provide ideal habitat for mothers to give birth to and protect their newborn calves, keeping them safe from natural predators like sharks. This winter, there have been 17 reported sightings of mother and calf pairs so far, providing hope that this small population of only about 400 animals is slowly inching toward recovery!
But as always, we’re seeking to make sure that recovery continues and that threats to the species don’t sneak in and steal it out from under us! Back in the 1990s, a small area off the coast of Northeast Florida and Georgia was federally designated as critical habitat for the species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because of its importance as a winter calving area. But over time, scientists have realized that an even bigger area stretching north across the coast of South Carolina and farther offshore of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina is “core calving habitat.” They’ve used these larger boundaries to define areas where fishing should be restricted to protect vulnerable right whale mothers and calves from entanglement, as well as areas where ships should be required to slow down to avoid hitting whales.
But despite this recognition that broader protections are needed for these most important members of the species, and a 2009 petition from Defenders and its conservation partners to expand critical habitat along the East Coast of the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has yet to take action. Expanding critical habitat would ensure that any federal activities likely to affect the area – like fishing, shipping, offshore wind energy development, or Navy activities– are evaluated to make sure right whale calving habitat is not impaired or destroyed. NMFS itself declared in 2010 that it would propose to amend its critical habitat before the end of 2011, but it still hasn’t moved forward with this beneficial action guaranteed by the ESA. On January 30,2013, Defenders and our partners notified NMFS that we’ve waited long enough to protect important right whale habitat, and that we’re planning to take them to court to end their unreasonable delay in proposing critical habitat revision.
Also critical for right whale protection is the extension of important rules that require large ocean-going ships to slow down in times and places right whales are likely to be present. Ship strikes are the leading cause of death for the species, but just like with cars, speed limits help ships avoid collisions either by giving vessels enough time to get out of the way, or giving the whales themselves time to move. Current speed rules are set to expire in December of this year unless NMFS acts to extend them, and once again, we are concerned that the agency will delay protections this species – and especially this new generation of young calves– needs to survive. Defenders and its partners petitioned NMFS last summer to extend the speed restrictions and we continue to push them to act quickly to avoid gaps in protection.
But there’s one more threat for right whale mothers and their calves: the Navy has chosen to site its $100 million Undersea Warfare Training Range close to their calving grounds. The Navy has deferred its decision to actually use the range until it conducts further research and analysis about the impact of operating the range on right whale and other marine species, but for now, the training site still sits uncomfortably close to the calving grounds. Defenders has taken the Navy and NMFS to court, arguing that this decision to build first and study later violates not only common sense, but also the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Right whales face a number of threats to their survival as a species. But here at Defenders, we’re committed to ensuring that right whales thrive, and that means making it safe for mothers to make their southern trek, and for calves to grow up into the next generation of right whales and help secure a future for these endangered gentle giants.