More areas around Kodiak Island could become critical habitat for endangered North Pacific Right Whales

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is in the process of expanding the critical habitat of North Pacific Right Whales off the coast of Alaska. If finalized, the rare marine species could have further protections near Kodiak Island and other waters across the Gulf of Alaska. KMXT’s Davis Hovey reports:

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It’s estimated that less than 50 North Pacific Right Whales exist today in a range that extends from Hawaii to the southeastern Bering Sea and beyond. The rare species of whale has been on the Endangered Species List since 1970 after historical whaling activities decimated the population.

Conservation areas for the whales already exist in parts of the Southeastern Bering Sea and a small area south of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, totaling over 35,000 square miles. They were established 15 years ago in 2008, when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) established critical habitat for the endangered whale.

But in 2022, two environmental groups: the Center for Biological Diversity and Save the North Pacific Right Whale, petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to add thousands more square miles to the animals’ critical habitat area in Alaska. NMFS announced its intent to expand those boundaries last fall after completing a year-long review.

Jennafer Malek is the North Pacific Right Whale recovery coordinator with NOAA Fisheries, also known as NMFS. She said sightings of the elusive marine mammal continue to be documented within the current critical habitat zones.

“So we know that they [North Pacific Right Whales] are still using those areas and we know that they are still important. So my best guess at this point, or my best estimate, is that we will be expanding as opposed to retracting any of the critical habitat,” Malek said.


Caption: Video footage of North Pacific Right Whales seen in Barnabas Trough, 25 miles south of Kodiak Island, in 2021 (NOAA Fisheries)

The decision process to add new areas to the existing critical habitat is based on one factor – the presence of zooplankton, which North Pacific Right Whales eat as their main prey source.

“If you look at the original designation of critical habitat from 2008, it basically says, ‘areas where there is enough of these small zooplankton for right whales to effectively feed,'” Malek explained. “So it’s worth it for them to spend time in these areas because there are enough zooplankton.”

An updated critical habitat map with all the potentially important feeding areas is not finalized yet. Malek says NOAA Fisheries still has to analyze acoustic recordings and other data to identify what other waters should be added to the right whale’s critical habitat in Alaska.
The Alaska team’s research efforts are hampered by many challenges including lack of resources, weather delays and the fact that the whales travel through international waters.

However, some scientists believe that North Pacific Right Whales migrate through the Fox Islands in the Aleutians as well as feed consistently near Kodiak Island.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Save the North Pacific Right Whale requested that the existing critical habitat areas be connected by extending the Bering Sea unit boundary westward and southward to the Fox Islands, through Unimak Pass to the edge of the continental slope, and eastward to Kodiak Island.

But with these marine mammals being so few in number, sightings have been rare; the last one recorded near Kodiak was documented in the fall of 2021. That means knowledge about these whales is limited. Malek said documented sightings can go a long way in contributing to what the agency knows about right whales.

“Any sighting information that we have is incredibly helpful for understanding where they are, and understanding at certain times of year why they might be in certain areas. As an example, we had some cod fishermen just north of Unimak Pass, in 2022 who sighted North Pacific Right Whales feeding in February, which was something that we had never seen,” Malek stated.

If you see a North Pacific Right Whale, take photos or videos and report the location where you saw it, along with other details via email np.rw@noaa.gov, or by calling Malek’s office at 907 271 1332.

You can identify a right whale by their spout, which has a ‘V’ shaped blowhole, or by its white raised rough patches of skin which are common features.

Malek did not have a timeline for when a proposed rule on the whales’ critical habitat would be published in the Federal Register.
When NOAA Fisheries does release a proposed rule, there will then be a required public comment period on the updated critical habitat before it can become federal law.

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