ANCHORAGE - Scientists are hunting this summer for one of the most precariously positioned animals on the planet - Pacific right whales.
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The whales, once prized by commercial whalers, have been teetering on extinction for decades. The search for the slow-moving behemoths is being prompted by the search for a less rare but increasingly valuable commodity - oil and gas in the Bering Sea.
The problem is that the area where the whales have shown up in surprising numbers in recent years overlaps an area the federal government earlier this year approved for oil and gas development. Lease sales in the southeastern Bering Sea are proposed for 2011.
It is an unfortunate juxtaposition, said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is fighting the federal government's five-year oil and gas development plan for the Bering Sea. He said that it is no surprise that the U.S. Minerals Management Service is funding the whale survey.
"Their existence is so tenuous as it is," Cummings said. "Any new research is completely welcomed. The unfortunate irony of it is that the impetus to do this research is propelled in part by the Department of the Interior proposal to open up right whale critical habitat to oil and gas leasing."
Last year, the center was successful in getting the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate almost 36,000 square miles of the Bering Sea as critical habitat for the whales. Some of that designated habitat is within the North Aleutian Basin, an area that the Bush administration has proposed to open up for oil and gas leasing.
This summer's survey is part of a larger four-year project to assess the seasonal distribution of the whales, their numbers and where they go.
With oil and gas development looming, the more detailed information is required under the Endangered Species Act. Right whales have been listed as endangered since the early 1970s.
It's believed that perhaps 11,000 of the slow-moving whales once swam the Northern Pacific. Current estimates put the number at less than 100, perhaps fewer than 50.
The ESA requires that an assessment be made of how oil and gas development could affect the few whales left. That means finding out how many whales there are and where they go, said Alex Zerbini, a whale biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
"We don't know whether these whales actually move to the lease area. If they don't, the impacts could potentially be smaller than if they move into the lease area," he said.