Critical Habitat for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale
Docket ID: NOAA-NMFS-2014-0085
Dear Ms. Damon-Randall,
The Sierra Club welcomes the proposed expansion of Critical Habitat for the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis)as both necessary and overdue. While we appreciate that the proposed Critical Habitat boundaries represent a considerable expansion over the current boundaries, we find that recent events and consideration of the potential impacts of global warming demand additional expansion of the boundaries, including the inclusion of Maine coastal waters and the addition of a migratory corridor.
We also note that the proposed rule would change the southern boundary of the North Atlantic right whale southeastern calving critical habitat from 28 degrees North to 29 degrees North, removing the Port of Cape Canaveral area from critical habitat protection. We strongly oppose that reduction in area and respectfully request that the current 28 degree North boundary be retained.
Despite efforts taken since the 1994 designation of the North Atlantic right whale as an endangered species, including strides taken to avoid or minimize ship strikes and entanglements, the population of North Atlantic right whales remains small, and the long term fate of the species is precarious, as acknowledged by the following statement in the proposed rule: “Due to the past depletion from which they have not recovered, the continued anthropogenic threats to the species, and the whale’s life history, the North Atlantic right whale is in danger of extinction throughout its range.”1 Recent actions by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management expose the North Atlantic right whale to even higher risk, and the proposed rule must be modified to address that risk. The July, 2014 Record of Decision by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has cleared the way for extensive geological and geophysical survey activities off the mid-and South Atlantic coast. Those survey activities will make extensive use of air gun arrays for seismic surveying, with potentially harmful impacts to the North Atlantic right whale. The 2017–2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program announced in January, 2015 potentially opens up large areas of the mid-Atlantic coast to future oil and gas exploration and production. The above actions place North Atlantic right whale mothers and calves at risk as they pass through the mid-Atlantic region on their way to calving grounds farther south, especially from the proposed use of seismic air guns operating for long periods of time over extensive distances. The proposed rule should include designation of a migratory corridor that includes the mid-Atlantic coast region.
The risk of potential impacts on the North Atlantic right whale from oil and gas exploration and production was recognized in the initial ESA designation in 1994. The 1994 Final Rule for Critical Habitat identifies the following risks to the North Atlantic right whale habitat:
“3. Possible habitat degradation through pollution, sea bed mining, and oil and gas exploration: Exploration and development for oil, gas, phosphates, sand, gravel, and other materials on the outer continental shelf may impact northern right whale habitat through the discharge of pollutants (such as oil, drilling muds and suspended solids); noise from seismic testing, drilling and support activity; and disturbance of the environment through vessel traffic and mining rig activity. If these types of activities are proposed, their timing and location may also require special management considerations, including the establishment and maintenance of buffer zones.” Similar caveats appear in the current proposed rule, which states that “special management considerations” may need to be applied to foraging areas and calving areas to address risks posed by oil and gas exploration and production.2 Special management considerations due to oil and gas exploration would also be required for the migratory route connecting the feeding grounds to the calving areas, and this should warrant designation of a migratory route critical habitat.
The importance of migratory corridors as a Biologically Important Area (BIA) is discussed in the Aquatic Mammals journal Special Issue on BIAs for Cetaceans within U.S. Waters3. The four categories of BIAs identified in the journal articles are: reproductive areas, feeding areas, migratory corridors, and areas in which small and resident populations are concentrated. (Emphasis added). NOAA’s Cetsound website (cetsound.noaa.gov) includes a CetMap module that can display Migration BIAs for numerous cetacean species, including the North Atlantic right whale. The Migration BIA boundaries for the North Atlantic right whale produced by CetMap are shown in Attachment 1, Figure A of our comments. They cover an extensive area of the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida.
We recognize that the CetMap migratory corridor was not intended as a regulatory boundary, but the absence of a migratory corridor of any size within the proposed rule means that one of the major BIA categories important for the survival of the North Atlantic right whale has been omitted.
NMFS defends this omission by stating that “ During migratory periods it is difficult to locate and sample marine mammals systematically or to observe them opportunistically, because they surface less frequently and cover large distances in any given day during migration (Hiby and Hammond 1989; Morreale et al. 1996; Mate et al. 1997; Knowlton et al. 2002, as cited by Firestone et al. 2008). The space used by right whales during their migrations remains almost entirely unknown (Schick et al. 2009). Defining a particular migratory corridor is further complicated by the fact that the available data are largely spatially constrained to nearshore areas (i.e., 30 nm of shore), and consist of opportunistic sightings. Based on the low numbers of whales observed migrating close to shore between foraging and calving habitats, it is apparent that not all right whales migrate within 30 nm of shore. A study by Schick et al. (2009), who tracked the movements of two tagged female right whales, also suggests that movement of right whales are much broader and more variable than suggested by results based solely on opportunistic sightings from surveys limited to nearshore areas (see Schick et al. (2009)). Beyond the uncertainty over the location of one or more migratory corridors, we cannot currently identify any specific physical or biological features that define migratory habitat.Therefore, we have concluded that it is not currently possible to define critical habitat associated with right whale migratory behaviors. The draft Biological Source Document (NMFS2014a) contains a thorough discussion of the available data we considered in our analysis. (Emphasis added) This rationale for not designating a migratory corridor is not convincing. The fact that female right whales are seen both in nearshore areas within 30 nm of shore and also much farther offshore suggests that the migratory corridor may be wide, not that is non-existent or impossible to delineate in some form.
The above statement that “we cannot currently identify any specific physical or biological features that define migratory habitat” is an erroneous interpretation of the requirement that some specific physical or biological features be identified in order to define a critical habitat. More than adequate information exists, along with viable models, that provide the necessary data to develop a migratory corridor that would provide the minimum necessary requirement to enhance survivability of the right whale populations under consideration (Firestone et. al. 2008, LaBreque 2015, Pendoley et. al. 2014, Schik et. al. 2009, Whitt et. al. 2013).4 The primary physical features for a migratory habitat would appear to be the existence of a contiguous volume of ocean water, within an appropriate range of temperatures, that provides a path through which North Atlantic right whales migrate from their foraging areas to their calving areas and return. Bombarding that physical body of water with high intensity sound waves over prolonged periods of times alters its character as habitat. Designating it as critical habitat would help address those impacts.
In summary we thank you for the opportunity to present our comments on this important document. On behalf of our 2.4 million members and supporters we urge that you accept our recommendations for strengthening protection of this unique species on the brink of extinction.
Patricia Matejcek and Doug Fetterly
Sierra Club Marine Action Team
Figure A – North Atlantic right whale BIA type-Migration for U.S. East Coast
1 Federal Register /Vol. 80, No. 34 / Friday, February 20, 2015 / Proposed Rules, page 9315
2ibid, pages 9329, 9331
3 Van Parijs, S. M., Curtice, C., & Ferguson, M. C. (Eds.). (2015). Biologically Important Areas for cetaceans within U.S. waters.Aquatic Mammals(Special Issue),41(1). 128 pp.
4 Firestone, J., Lyons, S. B., Wang, C., & Corbett, J. J. (2008). Statistical modeling of north Atlantic right whale migration along the mid-atlantic region of the eastern seaboard of the united states. Biological Conservation, 141(1), 221-232.
LaBrecque, E., Curtice, C., Harrison, J., Van Parijs, S.,M., & Halpin, P. N. (2015). 2. Biologically important areas for cetaceans within U.S. waters - east coast region. Aquatic Mammals, 41(1), 17-29.
Pendoley, K. L., Schofield, G., Whittock, P. A., Ierodiaconou, D., & Hays, G. C. (2014). Protected species use of a coastal marine migratory corridor connecting marine protected areas. Marine Biology, 161(6), 1455-1466.
Schick, R. S., Halpin, P. N., Read, A. J., Slay, C. K., Kraus, S. D., Mate, B. R., . . . Clark, J. S. (2009). Striking the right balance in Right Whale conservation. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 66(9), 1399.
Whitt, A. D., Dudzinski, K., & Laliberte, J. R. (2013). North Atlantic right whale distribution and seasonal occurrence in nearshore waters off new jersey, USA, and implications for management. Endangered Species Research, 20(1), 59-69.