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Feds commit to recovery plan for endangered right whales

North Pacific right whales, whose numbers have dwindled from thousands to perhaps as few as 30 individuals in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska will get some help from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Prompted by a notice of intent to sue from the Center for Biological Diversity, NMFS on June 7 published a recovery plan for the highly endangered whales.

Before the advent of commercial whaling in the 1800s, North Pacific right whales were thought to number as many as 20,000 individuals, but now there are likely fewer than three dozen in the eastern sector and perhaps a few hundred in Russia's Okhotsk Sea, said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage.

Dubbed right whales because they were the "right whales to hunt," the mammals may grow as big as 70 tons, compared to 25 to 40 tons for humpback whales.

The few remaining individual right whales are extremely vulnerable to ship strikes, oil development, spills, and entanglement in fishing gear.

With so few in existence, the loss of even one whale could threaten the entire population, Noblin said.

Last March 20, the center sent NMFS a formal notice of intent to sue the agency for failure to protect the whales. The agency responded in January with a draft plan.

"Recovery plans are crucial tools for saving species from extinction and recovering them to the point that they don't need federal help anymore," Noblin said. "While the current plan focuses primarily on studying these elusive whales, we encourage the fisheries service to use what it learns to put concrete protections in place."

This article originally appeared in The Cordova Times and is reprinted here with permission.