ANCHORAGE - A conservation group said Thursday it is prepared to sue a federal agency for failing to do more to protect a group of very rare North Pacific right whales in the Bering Sea.
The Center for Biological Diversity this week submitted a 60-day notice to the National Marine Fisheries Service over what it says is a breach of promise to protect the whales first sighted in 1996.
The center contends NMFS made several promises in 2002 that it didn't keep, including coming up with a recovery plan and continuing annual surveys.
"The Fisheries Service has abdicated its responsibility to protect this species," said center attorney Brent Plater. "Instead of following through on its promises, the service has actually stopped looking for this species and actively thwarted research efforts that aim to better understand the whales."
NMFS spokeswoman Sheela McLean said the agency has several projects planned this summer to learn more about the right whales seen summers in the southeastern Bering Sea.
The projects include an expanded survey to find them, a satellite tagging project to learn about migration, biopsy tissue collection for genetic analysis and deployment of underwater equipment to record whale calls.
"It's our responsibility to aid the recovery of these whales. We take it seriously," McLean said. "They are so few in number, so reclusive, so remote and so difficult to study."
Progress has been slow because of the agency's noninvasive research methods, she said.
Right whales both in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans were hunted nearly to extinction before coming under international protection in 1949. The whales, deemed the "right whales" to find by hunters, were prized for their oil and baleen.
According to NMFS, there likely are fewer than 100 North Pacific right whales in U.S. waters. There may also be a few off the coasts of Russia and Japan. They are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Brad Smith, a NMFS biologist in Anchorage, said the recovery of the species is uncertain. A few years ago, scientists learned that in the 1960s several hundred right whales were harvested illegally in Russia.
"That was pretty much the death blow to the stock," he said.
In 2000, the center asked NMFS to designate as critical habitat the area in the Bering Sea where the whales have been sighted summers since 1996, Plater said. The agency declined to do that but instead promised to do other things that weren't accomplished, he said.
"We have been sitting patiently since 2002," he said. "They simply won't do the things they promised until a court orders them to."
Smith said the agency could not grant the center's request for critical habitat because not enough is known about North Pacific right whales.
"We are at such a low level of understanding of these whales," Smith said.
Part of the problem is that until recently the North Atlantic right whale, estimated at between 300 and 350 animals, was considered the same species as the North Pacific right whale. Scientists know differently now, but there's still a lot to learn about the North Pacific right whale, he said.
The whales were first spotted by a NMFS research vessel eight years ago. All the whales were male, indicative of a "horribly endangered stock of animals," Smith said.
NMFS is working on a draft recovery plan for the species, which was supposed to have been available for public comment in 2002. Smith said he was not sure when it would be done.