Wednesday, October 13, 2010

{Press} Threatened right whales may get wider berth

Cape Cod Times | Mary Ann Bragg | October 09, 2010

"The rare and treasured right whales that feed in waters off Cape Cod in late winter and early spring may have their protected grounds expanded as part of a federal process designed to protect populations of endangered animals.

Scientific research shows that it may be necessary to expand three East Coast calving and feeding areas for North Atlantic right whales, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced this week.

The decision to expand the habitat boundaries would come in the second half of 2011. Then there would be a public review of the proposal that would take several months, said Teri Frady, fisheries service spokesperson.

The announcement was spawned by the efforts of four animal conservation groups that filed a petition in 2009, then a federal lawsuit in May looking to widen North Atlantic right whale habitats along the East Coast. The groups are The Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

New technology and methodologies that track whales, such as acoustic buoys, satellite telemetry and aerial surveys, have shown the marine mammals regularly use wider swaths than the federal limits established in 1994, said Sharon Young of Sagamore Beach, the Marine Issues Field Director of The Humane Society of the United States.

The three current seasonal right whale habitats are the calving grounds off Florida and Georgia and the feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel off Massachusetts.

The conservation groups want to double the size of the calving grounds, expanding them to areas off North Carolina. They want to at least triple the size of the feeding grounds, expanding them to the Canadian border. The groups also want seasonal protections for the whale's migration path along the East Coast, said Young.

Cape Cod Bay, in particular, continues to be an important habitat and also a laboratory for fine-tuning management practices to protect right whales, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in Plymouth. State officials, for example, have cleaned up unattended fishing gear in the bay.

"I think it's a really good template for what a habitat can be," Asmutis-Silvia said.

There are estimated to be between 300 and 400 North Atlantic right whales living along the East Coast, according to federal data. The whales have been listed as endangered through the federal Endangered Species Act since the early 1970s..

Generally, whales contribute in many ways to an ocean's ecosystem, including recent research that sperm whale excrement fertilizes aquatic plants that absorb the carbon linked to greenhouse gases and global warming, said Asmutis-Silvia.

"We were gratified that the agency agreed to expand the habitats," said Young. "They agreed they would be proposing new boundaries next year. We'll have to wait to see what they propose."

Along the East Coast, the North Atlantic right whales have made slow population gains in the last half-dozen years, said Mason Weinrich, executive director of the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester. He attributes the gains to an increase in calves and new rules and procedures that have slowed ship speeds and helped prevent fishing line entanglements. "I'm cautiously optimistic," Weinrich said.

Expanding the whales' critical habitat boundaries by itself would do very little, Weinrich said. But expansion would be an important step to ensure that future ocean projects and developments along the East Coast do no harm, based on the latest scientific evidence of where right whales truly birth and feed, he said.

"One is a step to the other," Weinrich said."

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