Northern right whales, reportedly the most endangered large cetaceans in the world, are now protected by a 500-yard restricted zone implemented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Particularly sensitive to human disturbance, the slow-swimming 50-foot whales number only about 300 worldwide, according to researchers, and continue to decline in population.
Officials hope that the new zone will give the whales an area of safety that will enable them to mate, calve and feed more freely. "Basically, you want the most endangered large whale in the world to feed when it wants," said Moira Brown, director of Allied Whale, a whale research facility in Bar Harbor, Maine. "The restricted zone offers the whales an extra measure of privacy and safety."
At least 17 whales have been killed by injuries related to human contact since 1970, according to Brown. Fifteen were hit by commercial ships and the other two were entangled in fishing gear.
Identification of the whales is easy, Brown explained, even from great distances. "Right whales have a distinctive V-shaped blow," said Brown. "It’s easy to identify the whales from even two miles away. They also have triangular-shaped black flukes which distinguish them from other whales."
The new restricted zone is not expected to affect whale-watching trips, particularly because right whales are so rare.
"We don’t see a lot of right whales anyway," said Lerone Stevens, a naturalist with a whale-watch company in Bar Harbor. "I think most companies will respect the new law."