updated 10/26/2004 9:32:23 AM ET 2004-10-26T13:32:23

Conservationists sued a federal agency Monday for allegedly failing to protect North Pacific right whales, which were hunted nearly to extinction more than a century ago and remain among the world’s most endangered animals.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect a “critical” habitat for the North Pacific right whale, saying it is required to do so under the federal Endangered Species Act.

That habitat most likely would be in Alaska’s Bering Sea, where an increasing number of whales have summered since 1996, said Brent Plater, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hunters nearly eliminated the right whale population in the 1800s. The animals received international protection in 1931 and have been listed as endangered since 1973.

Experts believe there are probably fewer than 100 North Pacific right whales in U.S. waters.

“The right whale was nearly hunted to extinction, and so it is our shared responsibility to ensure that this species survives,” Plater said. “We don’t have time to sit around and wait.”

NMFS spokeswoman Sheela McLean said the agency could not comment on the lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, until it had time to review it.

According to the lawsuit, the agency has known for eight years that Pacific right whales were gathering in the Bering Sea during the summertime but has done nothing to protect them. The whales’ range extends from Mexico, along the California coast, to the Arctic.

“Instead of actually working to protect the species ... they have just been sitting on their hands, saying we need more research, more research, more research and, in the meantime, the whales are on the brink of extinction,” Plater said.

Plater said a critical habitat designation would not necessarily mean a halt to fishing, but the center would like to see fishermen use gear that will not harm the whales.

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