for National Geographic News
The U.S. government Thursday designated thousands of square miles off Alaska as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale, one of the rarest whales in the world.
The designation of the 36,750 square miles (95,200 square kilometers) in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska was based on right whale sightings in the regions between 1996 and 2003.
Listed as endangered by the U.S. government since 1973, the North Pacific population once stood at 11,000.
Scientists believe that now fewer than a hundred of the whales ply the waters near Alaska. A few hundred more may reside in waters closer to Russia.
(Related: "'Devastating' Losses for Right Whales This Winter" [February 2, 2005].)
"This is a great victory for right whales and sound science and a victory for protection of habitat as an idea," said Brent Plater, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, California.
The center filed a lawsuit in 2000 to get the critical habitat designated.
According to Plater, species that are given critical habitat are twice as likely to recover as species that are not.
The designation means that before the government issues permits for activities such as oil drilling or fishing in the region, officials must first meet with whale experts and prove the activity will not harm the habitat or the whales, Plater explained.
Right whales are large baleen whales, meaning that instead of teeth they have bonelike plates, which they use to strain food from large gulps of water.
Adult right whales often weigh more than 220,000 pounds (a hundred metric tons) and are as long as 59 feet (18 meters), according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
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