Critical Habitat Expanded for Endangered Right Whales

COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES Endangered North Atlantic right whales

COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES
Endangered North Atlantic right whales

BARNSTABLE – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries is expanding the critical habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales by over 550 percent.

A critical habitat was established in 1994 in 4,500 square nautical miles in Cape Cod Bay, Georges Bank and off the coast of Georgia and Florida. The habitat has been extended to cover almost 30,000 square nautical miles.

The new critical habitat covers the whales feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank and southeast calving grounds from North Carolina to Florida.

David Gouveia, the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Program Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, said economic impacts from the habitat expansion should be minimal.

“There’s no additional management measures that are being proposed through this action,” he said. “Likewise, this activity does not include any new regulations or restrictions on commercial fishing operations or shipping operations.”

The regulations that were established in 1994 included reducing speed in the critical habitat areas. The regulations require vessels 65 feet long or larger to keep speeds at 10 knots or slower during certain times of the year.

Gouveia said those regulations will remain unchanged.

The maps show the increase in area of the critical habitat from when it was established in 1994.

The maps show the increase in area of the critical habitat from when it was established in 1994.

“This particular action now protects the habitat in addition to the species itself,” he said.

The expanded critical habitat will make it more difficult to get federal permits for offshore projects.

Gouveia said NOAA Fisheries expects the new critical habitat area would result in about 188 more biological opinions over the next 10 years.

“We are limiting those biological opinions to such things as wind farms, energy development, dredging – things of that nature,” he said.

The initial proposal for expanding the area was released in February of 2015 and 261 general comments were received during a 60-day comment period.

The new critical habitat designation is based on 35 years of aircraft and ship surveys of the distribution of the species and research into foraging and prey availability.

NOAA scientists believe the expansion of critical habitat area is necessary for species recovery. The population of the species has risen to 500 from 300 in 1994.

The final rule will go into effect in 30 days.

By BRIAN MERCHANT, CapeCod.com NewsCenter

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