NOAA aims to expand critical habitat for North Pacific right whales in Alaska

Only 30 estimated North Pacific right whales remain in Alaska
NOAA aims to expand critical habitat for North Pacific Right Whales in Alaska
Published: Sep. 26, 2023 at 9:18 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With only an estimated 30 North Pacific right whales left in Alaska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others hope to revise the critical habitat for the endangered species to support its population growth. If the estimated count of eastern North Pacific right whales (those found in Alaska) is accurate, it would make the species the most endangered whale population in the world.

NOAA believes the revision is justified after receiving a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and Save the North Pacific Right Whale, both of whom requested the expansion of the critical habitat for the rare whale.

“That included key migration areas in the Aleutian Islands as well as key feeding grounds off of Kodiak Island,” said Cooper Freeman, the Alaska representative and a senior advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. "

The additional critical habitat designations would link the right whale’s current critical habitat areas in the Bering Sea and a small portion of the Gulf of Alaska south of Kodiak Island.

There are two populations of North Pacific right whales — which are genetically distinct populations and scientists say not breed together. The population of whales living off the coast of Russia and Japan is faring considerably better than the population living off the U.S. coast. The western stock of the North Pacific right whale is estimated to have several hundred individuals.

“They’re really cool, they’re these, like, school buses hanging out in the water, they’re just these tanks with these stubby little flippers and they’ve got these really neat callosities on their head. We use them as a fingerprint so we can identify them,” said Jenna Malek, the North Pacific Right Whale Recovery Coordinator for NOAA.

The critical habitat of North Pacific right whales was initially listed in 2008 when there was not a lot of information known about them. Since then, NOAA has done research through passive acoustic monitoring and by using sightings to understand where the whales primarily migrate.

“We’re learning more and more about the critical areas where these whales feed and where they migrate to and in doing so we can increase their protections and help them not only survive, but recover,” Freeman said.

Malek maintains NOAA knows the revision for the critical habitat is warranted, but they are still working to advise what areas should be listed as critical habitat.

“It’s a highly endangered species, we definitely want to do all that we can to protect the species and help move it towards recovery so critical habitat is one of the tools that we have to aid in that process,” Malek said.

NOAA’s use of critical habitat is a mitigation effort, instead of a regulation effort. The designation of critical habitat means federal agencies can’t permit, fund, or carry out activities that are likely to negatively affect the habitat.

“Critical habitat, on its own, through the Endangered Species Act does not impact any activity that does not have a federal nexus,” Malek said.

NOAA will be looking at the various repercussions of the new rule, including its effects on national security and how adding areas to critical habitat might impact different industries in Alaska.

Aside from the North Pacific right whale, there are two other species of right whales in the world. Scientists believe these whales were severely hunted during commercial whaling activities in the 19th and 20th centuries, along with illegal whaling in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to their decline. The North Pacific right whale has the smallest population of the three.

With a small amount of these whales left and with more males than females, it’s hard to encourage population growth as they are not commonly seen.

“We really think there’s only about 30 here and this is based on estimates that were done back in 2011, so it’s pretty outdated at this point,” Malek said.

In addition, NOAA does not have designated funding for the North Pacific right whales, making it more challenging to confirm how many whales there are.

“One of the best things the public can do is get educated about these whales, learn their unique features, learn about their history, learn how to identify them ... and report that to NOAA and we can start to learn more about where they migrate, where they give birth, where they raise their young, where they feed, and in turn we can help recover and protect these whales,” Freeman said.

One way to spot right whales is by looking at their whale spout. If they have a ‘V’ shaped blow then it’s likely a right whale.

Whenever a North Pacific right whale is observed by the public, NOAA recommends reporting the sighting and sending in pictures or videos to