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US expands key zone for rare North Atlantic right whales

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A mother North Atlantic right whate and a calf were photographed off Duxbury Beach on May 6, 2015.
A mother North Atlantic right whate and a calf were photographed off Duxbury Beach on May 6, 2015.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

North Atlantic right whales, which are among the most endangered ocean creatures, are getting an extra layer of protection along the Eastern Seaboard in a move that federal officials hope will lead to a rebound in the animals' population.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week revealed it had greatly expanded the "critical habitat" of the whales.

"It's really great news for the species, because they are in such trouble," said Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium. "They are doing the right thing by acknowledging that the habitat is not defined by little boxes."

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The whales are known to feed and congregate in Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine up to Canada, with a portion of the population migrating to the warmer waters near the Georgia and Florida coasts for calving during colder seasons.

Experts say that only about 520 of the whales are alive today, a direct result of them being hunted for their blubber long before they became federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. Present-day human activities along a highly industrialized coastline, such as ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, have hindered their recovery.

The official expansion of the whale's critical habitat — defined as the area where activities essential to the whales's survival, such as eating, breeding, and calving, occur — is a logical step in supporting the species' rebound, without imposing any new regulatory measures, according to NOAA.

In the area off the Northeast, the habitat will be more than seven times larger, increasing from the 2,925 square nautical miles first designated by the agency in 1994 to 21,334 square nautical miles.

The original area once only included a portion of Cape Cod Bay and a larger area east of Nantucket in the area of the Great South Channel. The new area includes those areas and the Gulf of Maine up to the Canadian border.

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The regulators also expanded the critical habitat for the whales off the southeastern US coast, increasing it from 1,611 square nautical miles to 8,429 square nautical miles, stretching from Cape Fear in North Carolina south through Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Charles "Stormy" Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown and director of right whale habitat studies for the organization, said the new boundaries allow for much more informed management of the places where the whales roam, ensuring their environment stays intact.

"It's a very important move," he said. "It's pretty tough to put a small box around a wild animal, especially a whale that travels many thousands of miles each year of its life. ... What we have here is an adjustment that recognizes the wide use of the environment that supports these whales."

The new boundaries will go into effect at the end of next month, but they will not impact current commercial fishing or shipping operations, NOAA said. The designation does not create a refuge for the species, either.

However, any future offshore projects, such as oil or gas exploration, that would require federal permitting will be subject to more scrutiny, giving the government additional leverage in their efforts to mitigate any impacts.

"Everybody wants to protect pandas, and tigers, and rhinos, but this species is more endangered than they are," said Sharon B. Young, a marine issues field director for the Humane Society, one of the organizations that has battled since 2009 to expand the habitat.

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"They are very vulnerable to anything going on. Therefore, anything you are going to do that is critical to their survival — anything that you do — we have to look at it really carefully to be sure that it's not going to jeopardize that species," she said.

Carol "Krill" Carson, president of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance and a whale aficionado, said expanding the invisible partitions that mark the whales' favored haunts just makes sense because the animals never stay put.

"What the whale watch captains always say is these whales have tails and they use them," she said. "They are long-distance swimmers and migrators. They don't sit in one spot."


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.