January 26th, 2016 (Bo Petersen). Federal fisheries managers Tuesday expanded critical habitat for the perilously endangered right whale, a move that includes adding South Carolina waters to the winter calving ground.
The managers will hold a conference call with credentialed reporters on the decision at 1 p.m.
The designation of the waters comes 10 years after the first reports of newborn right whales off South Carolina startled observers. The grounds and critical area have been in southern Georgia and northern Florida, but eyewitness reports and survey flights have shown the whales calved over a wider range.
The designation comes after a review forced by a court order. A number of conservation groups petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2009 for the move, then sued in 2014 after delays in handling the petition. The grounds now are expanded as far as southern North Carolina.
Right whales are the rarest of the large whales, 40-ton creatures whose curious two-plume breathing spray and lack of a dorsal fin distinguish them from other whales. They are so massive and supple that one boater who has seen them described the moment as heart-stopping.
The whales were all but wiped out by commercial whaling. They have turned the corner toward potential recovery from a low of fewer than 300, thanks to awareness and conservation efforts. There are now nearly 500 known right whales. But calving numbers have dropped in recent years.
Ship strikes, line entanglements and noise pollution are among the biggest threats. The critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to make an extra efforts to protect the characteristics of these areas important to the species, when the agencies review permits.