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New Critical Habitat Proposed for North Atlantic Right Whales

Right Whales - Credit NOAA

North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are among the most endangered marine mammals in U.S. waters, numbering approximately 450 individuals today. Once hunted for the oil and baleen (for corsets and buggy whips, among other things), right whales were popular among whalers because they would float after being killed, making them easier to bring back to shore and process than other large whales.

Right whales were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in June 1970, and under the subsequent  Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA).  At that point, they were called “northern right whales” and consisted of two separate populations, one in the North Atlantic Ocean and one in the North Pacific Ocean.  The ESA, requires  us to designate critical habitat for any species that we list as endangered or threatened.

Critical habitat is defined by section 3 of the ESA as: (i) the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed, on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection; and (ii) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed, upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species.

In 1994, we listed critical habitat for the North Atlantic population of northern right whales, which consisted of parts of Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank, the Great South Channel (off the coast of Massachusetts) for feeding, and waters adjacent to the coasts of Georgia and the east coast of Florida for calving and nursery habitat.

Based on a comprehensive right whale status review conducted in 2006, we concluded that genetic data supported three distinct right whale lineages as separate species: North Atlantic right whales, North Pacific right whales, and southern right whales. In 2008, we listed North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales as a separate species under the ESA. In 2009, we were petitioned to revise critical habitat for North Atlantic right whales. Since being petitioned, we revised the existing critical habitat by completing the rulemaking process already underway.

The proposed critical habitat, which you can see in the maps below, greatly expands the previous designation. The key benefit of designating critical habitat is that other Federal agencies are put on notice that they must consult with NOAA Fisheries if they intend to authorize, fund, or carry out an action that may affect right whale critical habitat. This activity does not include any new restrictions for commercial fishing operations or shipping lanes.


Figure 1: Comparison of Current Right Whale Critical Habitat to Areas Proposed for Critical Habitat Designation


Figure 2: Specific Area on which are found the Essential Features of North Atlantic Right Whale Foraging Habitat


Figure 3: Proposed Southeastern Calving Critical Habitat for North Atlantic Right Whales