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WDC sues US government to protect whales

WDC together with a coalition of other environmental and animal protection groups is suing the US federal government over a failure to take action to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Only about 450 North Atlantic right whales exist today, making them one of the world’s most endangered large whales. Without this additional protection, the species faces a serious risk of extinction.

The law suit seeks to significantly expand protected areas for the right whales from 4,000 square miles to over 50,000, including all nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds along the East Coast.

WDC, the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife filed the case in federal court in Boston today because they believe the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US government agency tasked with saving the species is failing to do just that.

North Atlantic right whales were devastated by commercial whaling in the 1700s. Despite being federally protected since 1970, they have not recovered due to continuing threats. Fishing gear entanglement and collisions with ships have killed or seriously injured at least 23 right whales since 2004.

Each year right whales migrate from their summer breeding and feeding area off the northeastern U.S. coast to the Southeast to give birth in the winter, and then return north. Yet only a tiny portion of these key areas is federally protected as ‘critical habitat’. Scientists have repeatedly acknowledged that current habitat boundaries are not protective enough and should be expanded.

The groups are seeking expanded protection for the whale’s calving grounds off Georgia and northern Florida, critical feeding habitat off the northeast coast, and the mid-Atlantic migratory route between calving and feeding grounds. In areas designated as critical habitat, the federal government must ensure that activities including commercial fishing, vessel traffic, and oil drilling will not damage the natural habitat of the whales or reduce their  chance of recovery.

Despite numerous requests the Fisheries Service has consistently delayed action to protect these whales.. In 2009 the groups filed a formal legal petition to extend the right whale’s critical habitat, and in 2010 they sued after the Fisheries Service failed to respond. The agency then announced that critical habitat revision was indeed warranted and promised to propose revisions in the second half of 2011, yet it has taken no action.

The whales can reach 55 feet in length. Adult female right whales reproduce slowly – giving birth to one calf every four years on average, and they do not reach reproductive maturity until age 8.