The Center for Biological Diversity yesterday filed a formal notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to develop a recovery plan under the Endangered Species Act for the highly endangered North Pacific right whale. The North Pacific right whale is thought to be the most endangered large whale in the world, with as few as 30 individuals in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska and perhaps a few hundred in Russia’s Okhotsk Sea.

“North Pacific right whales lead a precarious existence,” said the Center’s Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “Without the full protections of the Endangered Species Act, including a strong recovery plan, these whales will live on only in history books.”

Under the US Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service is required to issue and implement a plan for the conservation and recovery of the North Pacific right whale. Although the whale has been listed as endangered as a “northern right whale” since 1973 and since 2008 as a species in its own right, this critically endangered whale has no recovery plan.

“Recovery plans are essential to saving struggling species and helping them recover to the point where they no longer need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act,” said Noblin. “Studies have shown that species with recovery plans are far more likely to be on the road to recovery than those without.”

Right whales were so named because they were the “right whale to hunt”: they are slow swimmers, they swim within sight of shore and their carcasses float. Right whales were hunted for oil, meat, corset stays, umbrella ribs and buggy whips — until the early 20th century. Once abundant, numbering as many as 20,000 before the advent of commercial whaling, the North Pacific right whale is now the most endangered whale in the world. Today the few remaining individuals are extremely vulnerable to ship strikes, oil development and oil spills, and entanglement in fishing gear. With so few North Pacific right whales in existence, the loss of even one whale could threaten the entire population.

Though the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) has been considered officially endangered for almost 40 years, it long shared its Endangered Species Act listing with the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), thus not receiving the individual recognition and protection it deserved. But in 2008 the whales were listed as endangered as a distinct species, significantly increasing their legal protection and triggering requirements to prepare a recovery plan and take other measures for the whales’ conservation.

As compared with the intensively studied North Atlantic right whale, the more offshore and remote distribution of the North Pacific right whale may be an advantage in terms of less intensive exposure to human impacts, but the disadvantage is that impacts that do occur are less likely to be detected and their consequences are harder to ascertain and evaluate.

Further Reading:
Center for Biological Diversity
More Right Whale news stories
Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G.P., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N. 2008. Eubalaena japonica. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. .

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