Thousands of square miles off Alaska have been designated as critical habitat for North Pacific right whales, considered the most endangered whale in the world.
The federal rule published Thursday designates some 36,750 square miles in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska as critical habitat for right whales. The rule takes effect Aug. 7.
At least 11,000 of the slow-moving whales — prized by commercial whalers for their oil and baleen — once swam the waters of the North Pacific. The whales were listed as endangered in 1973 and there are now believed to number fewer than 100 in waters near Alaska. A few hundred more may remain closer to Russia.
Even with the critical habitat designation, the recovery of the whales is tenuous, said Brad Smith, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Anchorage.
"They are still considered an endangered species and that means there is some probability that these animals may go extinct in the foreseeable future," Smith said.
Commercial whalers decimated right whales in the 1800s and by the 1900s they were scarce. They came under international protection in 1935 but Japan and the Soviet Union did not sign the agreement and continued killing them.
Scientists got a surprise in the summer of 2004 when 25 right whales were spotted in the Bering Sea. That was twice as many as previously seen. A right whale was spotted last summer in the Gulf of Alaska.
Brent Plater, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit in 2000 to get critical habitat designated for the whales, said species that get critical habitat protection are twice as likely to recover.