Cape Cod Times: Expanded Rules to Protect Right Whales

February 18, 2015

Cape Cod Times: Expanded rules to protect right whales
Proposal would enlarge critical habitat area, including part of Cape Cod Bay
By Mary Ann Bragg
Posted Feb. 18, 2015

A new federal rule will substantially expand areas along the East Coast designated as critical for North Atlantic right whale feeding and calving. Animal conservationists say, though, that the protections could go farther.

Currently, the areas designated as “critical habitat” for the right whales are off Florida and Georgia, where the whales calve, and in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel, where the whales feed.

The new rule, to be available Friday for public comment, would expand the critical habitat to include nearly all of the Gulf of Maine and east to Georges Bank, within U.S. boundaries, as well as extending the Florida and Georgia calving grounds north to southern North Carolina.

The current areas comprise about 3,500 square nautical miles, and the proposed area would be around 30,000 nautical miles, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and Sharon Young of The Humane Society of the United States.

The expansion would also include the western side of Cape Cod Bay, which is currently excluded from the critical habitat designation.

Adding the western section of Cape Cod Bay as critical habitat makes sense based on the data collected over several years by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, through aerial surveys and through on-the-water habitat research, according to the center's CEO, Richard Delaney.

"Over the last several years, we have found increasing concentrations on the western side," Delaney said. 

There are about 450 North Atlantic right whales in waters off the United States and Canada, according to NOAA. The biggest threats to the whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, according to NOAA and whale conservationists.

“We’re pleased to see that they are proposing a much broader and more realistic area,” Young said.

The Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and Whale and Dolphin Conservation have pushed for the expanded habitat areas since first filing a petition in 2009 with NOAA Fisheries. The conservation groups largely used the federal government’s own studies and research to prove that the North Atlantic right whale habitat is much larger than was understood in 1994, Young said.

NOAA Fisheries first delineated critical habitat for right whales in 1994, under provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The new rule does not include, as the four conservation groups had wanted, the right whales’ regular migratory path between feeding grounds in the north and calving grounds in the south. “It’s a corridor,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia of Whale and Dolphin Conservation said. “We know where they are going. They’re staying in that lane.”

The waters off the mid-Atlantic states are where new energy facilities are being considered, including wind, oil and gas, as well as military testing, Asmutis-Silvia said. Those types of facilities should be scrutinized carefully given the presence of the whales during migratory periods, she said. The new rule also does not consider waters in and around Nantucket and Block Island, where right whales are making appearances, she said.

Delineating an area as right whale critical habitat basically means that NOAA has identified physical and biological features that are essential to the conservation of the marine mammal. The features might be an abundance of copepods, tiny drifting crustaceans on which the whales feed, or calm and warm sea conditions, ideal for calving.

The proposed rule does not create a refuge for the right whales, and does not come with new restrictions on commercial fishing, NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel said.

"It sets up a nice vehicle for consultation between NOAA and other government agencies and other entities who might be thinking of doing some kind of activity that could be deleterious to the survival of the right whale," Delaney said.

In 2012, President Obama directed federal officials to carefully consider all public comments about impacts on science and the economy before designating any new critical habitats, and NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comments on science and economics in particular.

The agency will make a final decision on the rule once all public comments have been considered.

http://www.capecodtimes.com/article/20150218/NEWS/150219428