An environmental group will go to court to push a federal recovery plan for one of the most endangered whales on the planet.
The Center for Biological Diversity announced Tuesday it intends to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service over the agency's failure to develop a recovery plan for the North Pacific right whale.
"We're frustrated," said Rebecca Noblin, an attorney in the group's Anchorage office. "It seems as if NMFS has sort of written off the right whale. It's like the fisheries service has written the right whale's obituary before it's died. There is a chance to save North Pacific right whale but it's going to take the full protections of the Endangered Species Act."
The law requires 60 days' notice before a lawsuit can be filed.
Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Springs, Md., said the agency has started a five-year review on the North Pacific right whale and notification will appear in the Federal Register this week.
"This five-year review is will help the NOAA Fisheries scientists compile the information and recognize the gaps in knowledge that we have," she said. "We really don't know a lot about the whale, and we're trying to learn as quickly as we can."
NOAA Fisheries chief science adviser Richard Merrick said right whales have been on a confusing track. The agency had a recovery plan in place when North Atlantic, North Pacific and southern right whales were considered one species but they eventually there were split and designated as separate species. For North Pacific right whales, the initial emphasis was in designating critical habitat, which was done in 2005 and 2006, he said.
Just 25 to 30 North Pacific right whales are believed to remain in the eastern stock of the population, which can be found most years in the Gulf of Alaska or the Bering Sea during summer feeding months. Perhaps a couple of hundred make up the western population, Noblin said.
Before whaling, the population may have numbered as many as 20,000, but whalers found them to be highly desirable prey -- big, slow, and still buoyant after they're killed. Their numbers were decimated, starting in the 1800s.
The "nail in coffin" for the eastern population, Noblin said, was illegal catches by Soviet vessels in the Gulf of Alaska in the 1960s. "That was what really brought the population to the brink," she said.
Right whales use baleen plates to filter food from water, especially zooplankton. But unlike other baleen whales, they're skimmers, removing food using baleen while moving with their mouth open through a patch of zooplankton, according to the website of NOAA Fisheries' Office of Protected Species.
Adults are 45 to 55 feet, with females at the upper end. Calves ware 13 to 15 feet and weigh a ton at birth.
A recovery plan is a blueprint for moving a species off the endangered list and studies indicate species with recovery plans are more likely to do so, Noblin said. "It brings together the science of what the threats to the species are, and then it sets goals for how to protect the species and how to recover it," she said.
The unknowns, such as where right whales spend winters, cannot stand in the way of a recovery plan under the law, she said.
"It's often used as an excuse but the Endangered Species Act explicitly demands that agencies protect species even in the absence of definite knowledge," she said. "You want to lean toward the precautionary approach."
Right whales are vulnerable to ship strikes, spills, noise and other threats from oil development and entanglement in fishing gear, Noblin said. With so few North Pacific right whales, the loss of even one whale could threaten the population.
"One of the big components will be additional research to determine exactly what the current threats to the species are," she said. "Ship strikes are a good guess."