Endangered Whales Get Protected Area off Alaska

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 7, 2006
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.

Endangered Whales

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).

Some are known to live longer than 70 years.

The whales feed exclusively on zooplankton, microscopic animals that drift in the oceans. The designated critical habitat contains four species of zooplankton that are important food sources for the whales.

The whales were commercially hunted for their oil and baleen beginning in the 1800s—the baleen being popular for making corsets, umbrellas, and fishing rods.

The legal hunt lasted into the 1950s, and illegal hunts continued into the 1960s, according to NOAA.

(Wallpaper: whale tail.)

Hopeful Moment

Even with the critical habitat designation, the recovery of the whales is tenuous, Brad Smith, a NOAA biologist in Anchorage, Alaska, told the Associated Press.

"They are still considered an endangered species, and that means there is some probability that these animals may go extinct in the foreseeable future," he said.

According to Plater, of the Center for Biological Diversity, recurring sightings of right whales in the North Pacific over the past few years have raised the hopes that the species is on the rebound.

The critical habitat designation could be what the species needs for a successful recovery.

"Nobody knows for sure if it will work. There's a lot of risk, but this is a very hopeful moment for the right whale," Plater said.

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