ANCHORAGE - Conservationists sued a federal agency Monday for failing to protect North Pacific right whales - the world's most endangered whale that summers in Alaska's Bering Sea.
The suit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco charges that the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to protect the whales as required under the federal Endangered Species Act. There are probably fewer than 100 North Pacific right whales in U.S. waters.
Right whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. They received international protection in 1931 and have been listed as endangered since 1973.
The Center for Biological Diversity is asking the federal court to order the agency to protect the North Pacific right whale's "critical" habitat. That area most likely would be in the southeastern Bering Sea, where an increasing number of whales have been spotted since 1996, said lawyer Brent Plater.
"The right whale was nearly hunted to extinction, and so it is our shared responsibility to ensure that this species survives," he said. "We don't have time to sit around and wait."
NMFS spokeswoman Sheela McLean said the agency could not comment on the lawsuit until it had time to review it.
NMFS has known for eight years that Pacific right whales were gathering summers in the Bering Sea but has done nothing to protect them, Plater said. The whales tend to stay in coastal regions. Their 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.