The Rarest Whale Could Be Swimming in Safer Waters—If Oil Drillers Don’t Get There First

Expanded critical habitat zones along the Atlantic Coast could make it harder for petroleum exploration near the North Atlantic right whale’s feeding and calving grounds.

North Atlantic right whales. (Photo: Barret and MacKay/Getty Images)

Feb 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The endangered North Atlantic right whale could soon find a new safe haven.

A federal proposal would expand the area marked as “critical habitat” for the world’s rarest whale species about sevenfold, further protecting the animal’s birthing grounds, which stretch from southern North Carolina to northern Florida.

The changes could mean offshore drilling, vessel traffic patterns, and sonar testing could all be scrutinized more closely to see if there are any negative effects on the whales.

The rule proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Tuesday would expand the whales’ designated habitat from 4,000 square miles to more than 29,000 square miles—split between the northeast feeding ground and southern calving grounds.

“Survey data and other studies over the past 20 years have increased our understanding of right whale ecology and habitat needs,” Eileen Sobeck, NOAA assistant fisheries administrator, said in a statement. “Based on this increased understanding, we are proposing to modify the existing critical habitat designation for the species.”

“Right now, only 8.5 percent of their habitat is adequately protected by critical habitat,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia, director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said in a statement. “This proposed change would help to protect almost 60 percent of their home range in U.S. waters, an important step toward saving this whale from extinction.”

It’s the latest bit of good news for the North Atlantic right whale, which after nearly two centuries of decline due to commercial whaling has seen an uptick in its population from a stagnant 450 up to 500 individuals. That’s due in part to new federal regulations that have enforced vessel speed limits and shifted shipping lanes along the Eastern Seaboard to avoid whale-vessel collisions.

Still, recent decisions handed down from the Obama administration could undermine the right whale’s momentum. This past summer, the Bureau of Ocean Management decided to get end a 30-year ban on sonic cannons to search for oil and gas off the coast from Delaware to Florida. And just this past month, after asking Congress to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling, the Obama administration announced it intends to open up the Atlantic coast for offshore drilling, with leases proposed off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia—right through the heart of the newly expanded North Atlantic right whale habitat zone.

NOAA officials have yet to comment on what effect the proposed habitat expansion would have on such an oil exploration plan.

In the meantime, conservationists argue the expansion of the whale’s habitat zone is a good step but is incomplete without a designated migration corridor that would protect the species from ship strikes and other dangers along its route.

“The proposed rule does not go nearly far enough,” said Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “Migrating right whales must run a dangerous gauntlet twice a year from south to north and back again. The agency must designate sufficient migratory habitat to protect right whales from the lethal threats posed by fishing gear, ship strikes, and offshore energy development.”