Whale habitats may get bigger

21st Nov 2002 Story: www.boston.com

The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering expanding the boundaries for major breeding grounds and habitat areas for right whales off the coast of New England.

The Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, petitioned for the potential change, which would merge the two critical habitats of Cape Cod Bay and Great South Channel and enlarge it to include most of the waters from Massachusetts to Maine.

The Ocean Conservancy contends that new data on the right whale's range, habits, and causes of mortality along the East Coast of the United States show that the current critical habitat designation is not sufficient to protect the whales.

''The surveys that the Fisheries Service has been able to do really found that the original boxes they drew for the critical habitat no longer cover the entire area these animals use,'' said Nina Young, director of marine wildlife conservation for the Ocean Conservancy. ''We felt that it was probably better to go back and look at where the whales actually are and redraw those boxes to conform with what we're seeing today.''

North Atlantic right whales, which have been listed as endangered since 1970, migrate along the Atlantic coast seasonally, but are found in five main areas. Three of these are in US waters: the Great South Channel in New England, Cape Cod Bay, and the southeastern US, which the whales use during the winter months as a calving ground.

The Ocean Conservancy also asked the Fisheries Service to expand the southern habitat, off the coast of Georgia and Florida, by 2,700 square nautical miles.

Young said that the two greatest threats to right whales are fishing nets and ship strikes. For fishermen, an expansion of the critical habitat could mean time and area closures and modifications to fishing gear and practices. Other mariners could face speed limits and warnings to be alert for whales in certain areas. The impact of the expansion on fishermen and other mariners would depend on which areas become part of the whales' habitat.

''If new waters are designated as a critical habitat, we would need to take a hard look and ask, `Does it require new specific management rules?''' Fisheries Service spokesman George Liles said. ''What's appropriate in Cape Cod Bay might not be appropriate in another area where the fishery might be entirely different.''

In the past, federal regulators have limited lobster fishing in the Cape Cod Bay critical habitat from Jan. 1 through May 1 and banned gillnet fishing in that area entirely during the same period. Gillnet fishing involves stretching a long net across the usual path of a school of fish.

In a Federal Register notice published Tuesday, National Marine Fisheries Service administrator Rebecca Lent wrote that the Ocean Conservancy's petition ''presents substantial scientific information indicating that this action may be warranted.'' However, Liles said that was standard language and that the finding of ''substantial scientific information'' is just the first hurdle for a regulatory change.

''There is a ton of new information that has come out in the last 10 years about right whales and their distribution,'' Liles said, pointing to a research project that includes whale-watching and counting efforts by the service, state agencies, and nongovernmental agencies.

''There has been a real active attempt over last seven or eight years to gather more information on where the whales are and what their habits are,'' Liles said. ''When you look at all that, does that mean the critical habitat should be expanded? That's something that the biologists are going to have to look at.''

The Fisheries Service is accepting public comments until Jan. 21, and expects to make a decision within a year.